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Originally published Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 3:05 PM

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‘The Way, Way Back’: a small, summer comedy with heart

A review of the breezy summer coming-of-age comedy “The Way, Way Back,” starring Liam James as an awkward teenager vacationing with his mom (Toni Collette) and her self-important boyfriend (Steve Carell).

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3.5 stars

‘The Way, Way Back,’ with Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material. Several theaters.

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Much of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s summer-breeze comedy “The Way, Way Back” feels familiar, but in a good way, like a comfortably rumpled beach house you’re happy to return to year after year. The film, set in a vacation town on the Massachusetts shore, features just such a house, but not everyone in it is happy.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is there with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), whose self-important boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) owns the house. The trio, along with Trent’s aloof teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), have arrived for a sun-drenched holiday, but tensions flare between Trent and Duncan, and it looks likely to be a very, very long summer.

James (previously seen as Sarah Linden’s hapless son on TV’s “The Killing”) wonderfully portrays a kid who doesn’t quite fit in: his shoulders slump, he seems uncomfortable in his clothes (which are, as he’s all too aware, not quite cool), he never knows quite what to say to the bikini-clad girls on the beach.

He’s mystified by his mother’s infatuation with Trent, and by how quickly she seems to get swallowed up in a whirl of neighbors and parties and drinking (“It’s like spring break for adults,” one of the girls tells Duncan), leaving him on his own. But soon Duncan finds a home: at the Water Wizz water park, where an extroverted employee named Owen (Sam Rockwell), perhaps sensing that the kid needs a pal, befriends him.

Nothing of great importance really happens in “The Way, Way Back,” but the movie wonderfully captures the heat-slowed rhythms of summer, the kid’s-eye paradise of a modest water park, the way a group of longtime employees form a family, and how it takes just one friend to make a lonely boy feel like he belongs.

Its cast is a pleasure, particularly Allison Janney as a motormouthed neighbor (“I’m so mad at them, I don’t even want to get into it,” she says, and then, after the tiniest of beats, gets into it), Collette as a loving mom who’s a bit blinded by that summer sun, and most of all Rockwell, playing a constant performer who, underneath his dude bluster, is lonely, too.

And its ending, in the “way back” seat of an old-school station wagon, is low-key perfection: Things aren’t fixed — life often isn’t like a movie — but nonetheless, Duncan will be OK.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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