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Sundance review: 'The Way, Way Back' is awkwardly appealing

Published January 22, 2013 7:56 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Three stars

If awkward wasn't funny, there'd be no movie in "The Way, Way Back."

But awkward can be very funny, and there are a lot of laughs in this comedy/drama, which premiered Monday at the Sundance Film Festival. A lot of poignancy. And a lot of, well, awkwardness.

The story centers on Duncan (Liam James), an, um, awkward 14-year-old boy who's headed on summer vacation by the seashore with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette); her obnoxious boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell); and his surly daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin).

For oddness' sake, Trent drives an old Buick station wagon with a "way, way back" - the third seat that faces rear. And Duncan is in the way, way back, both literally and figuratively. His divorced mom is trying to build a new life, mostly for herself, and she figures Trent is about the best she can do.

Duncan doesn't think much of Trent, and with good reason. Trent really is a jerk. And Carell, cast against type, does a great jerk.

The ocean shore community is filled with character, none bigger or more brazen than next-door-neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), who steals every scene she's in. And whose daughter, Susanna (Annasophia Robb), proves quite an attraction for Duncan.

Duncan, however, is looking for a father. His own father is out of the picture. Trent is no substitute. So he latches on to the oddball manager of the local water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell), and a weird (but not strange) friendship is born.

"The Way, Way Back" was written by and marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon ("Ben and Kate") and Jim Rash ("Community") - see what happens when you give a couple of sitcom stars an Oscar? (They won an Academy Award for the "The Descendants.")

Actually, they do a fine job. "The Way, Way Back" isn't perfect. There are under-developed and undeveloped characters. And it's a bit sitcommy in one way - the kids are wise beyond their years nd the adults are childish.

But it's funny. And touching. And awkwardly appealing.

Scott D. Pierce