There are two parts to a great coming-of-age story: the adults whom the young protagonists are rebelling against, and the adults who show the protagonists the rewards of rebellion.
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the writing team who make their directing debut in "The Way, Way Back," have surrounded their engaging central teen with some of the sharpest, funniest and most touching adults a coming-of-age story could hope for.
The teen is Duncan (Liam James), who at 14 is spending his summer with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and grumpy older sister, Steph (Zoe Levin), in a beachside vacation town with Pam's new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent aims to bond with Duncan, but his punch-on-the-shoulder style of parenting leaves a lot to be desired.
While Trent and Pam party with hard-drinking neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and Trent's longtime friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), Duncan looks for something interesting to do. He finds it at the nearby Water Wizz, a rundown water-slide park.
Water Wizz is managed by Owen (Sam Rockwell), the laid-back king of all the chlorinated glory he surveys. Owen hires Duncan to work at the park, and soon the kid is learning the ropes and making friends with the park's quirky staff (who include Maya Rudolph, as Owen's long-suffering girlfriend Caitlin, and Rash and Faxon). Duncan also impresses Betty's 16-year-old daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who becomes his first significant crush.
Rash and Faxon (who share an Oscar with Alexander Payne for co-writing "The Descendants") obviously took copious notes on their summer vacations. They nail the details of Duncan's school's-out wandering and the seasonal juvenalia of the adults around him. Susanna refers to the beach town as "spring break for grown-ups," and she's not too far off.
The rookie directors benefit from perfect casting. James is winning as the wide-eyed Duncan. Carell and Collette, reunited from "Little Miss Sunshine," share a prickly chemistry. But best of all is Rockwell, a perpetually underrated actor who makes Owen's odd mix of sunshine and sarcasm feel completely lived in. They make "The Way, Way Back" a worthwhile trip through adolescence.
'The Way, Way Back'
A teen's summer of fun and self-discovery, made enjoyable by a comic cast and an observant script.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, July 19.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.
Running time • 103 minutes.