PopcornIt’s appropriate that much of the new film The Way, Way Back takes place at a waterpark.

That’s because, like the water slides at Water Wizz, the movie is a fun ride, with surprising twists and turns, and even though it’s one with a predictable destination, it’s still cool and refreshing.

way_way_back_posterWritten and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants), The Way, Way Back is a throwback movie, the latest in a long line of summertime coming-of-age stories where a loser kid finds himself with the help of some older, immature types.

In this case, the kid is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who’s spending the summer, against his will, at a beach house with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s equally overbearing friends — including another couple (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), and saucy, flirty Betty (Allison Janney), who lives next door with her teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

Trent’s a bit of a jerk — he tells Duncan that on a scale of one to 10, he’s a three — and Duncan, who, admittedly, is a bit of an introverted loser, is having a hard time fitting in with the “spring break for adults” scene. On a bike ride one day, Duncan discovers the local water park, Water Wizz, and meets Owen (Sam Rockwell, playing the kind of character Bill Murray would have played back in the day). Sensing that the kid needs some looking after, Owen takes him under his wing and puts him to work.

Personality develops, love blooms, etc.

Sure, you’ve seen this story arc before, in movies like Adventureland. Rash and Faxon’s film sticks largely to that tried and true formula, with a few tweaks here and there. But this is a movie that’s not about plot as much as it is about character, and the film includes plenty with whom you’ll want to spend some time.

Way-Way-Back-sceneChief among them is Rockwell’s Owen. As he’s done in movies such as Welcome to Collinwood and Seven Psychopaths, Rockwell turns in a slightly off-kilter, almost too natural performance, making Owen a bit more than just a stock character. He’s nothing short of endearing, the kind of smart-ass rebel we all wish we had as a friend (and role model) growing up.

Like Owen, the film has a laid-back, crowd-pleasing charm that will easily win you over.

You get the feeling this is the kind of summer Rash and/or Faxon experienced growing up. They seem to recognize and appreciate the horror of being an awkward kid, and the film almost functions as their personal crusade to bring young moviegoers out of their shells. They get the tone, the setting, the casting, and almost everything else right — including their use of the water park as a breeding ground for irresponsible slackers who still think they have it pretty good there.

Though the specific location of the movie is never mentioned, it was filmed on the south shore of Massachusetts to accommodate Carell, who didn’t want to be too far from his family. (Water Wizz really exists; it’s in Wareham, Mass.) Working around him proved to be a smart decision; Carell’s against-type performance reminds us that when challenged, he can be a really good actor (unlike, say, in last summer’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World).

way-way-back-kidsAnd not to be left out of the fun, Rash and Faxon appear in the movie as employees at Water Wizz. It’s a pleasure to see Faxon, especially, since his Ben and Kate was cancelled by Fox way too soon. (Rash, of course, plays the dean on Community.)

There’s a comment made early on in the movie about how Water Wizz was built in 1983 and doesn’t age. Similarly, as long as there are misfit kids, there will be coming-of-age movies like The Way, Way Back. In a sea of big, loud, hollow summer movies, this is a film with real humanity and actual heart.

Duncan may be a 3 at the start of this movie, but I’m giving The Way, Way Back an 8.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Musings.

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