Despite its poverty of train wrecks and Tontos, "The Way Way Back" will be a lot of people's favorite film this summer, one so refreshingly bright and smart you overlook the creakiness of the plotline. The 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), doomed to a beach vacation with his too-nice Mom (the ever-reliable Toni Collette) and her cruelly judgmental new boyfriend (Steve Carell), finds himself via the wisecracking reprobate manager of a local water park (Sam Rockwell), who takes the lad under his wing. Any movie that lifts from both "This Boy's Life" and "Meatballs" is a rarefied creation, and in this case a pretty wonderful movie.
"The Way Way Back" (which is where you sit in a station wagon when you're low man in the pecking order) is mostly comedy, partly soap, and is directed by first-timers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. They shared a screenwriting Oscar with Alexander Payne for "The Descendants," and their new one is a writer's movie, too, particularly when Rockwell is acting up. He's always been great, and overlooked, and he's the comedic centerpiece of "Way Way."
Rockwell's counterweight is Carell, who makes his character, Trent, not just dislikable but menacingly so. There are a number of reasons that "Way Way Back" recalls "Little Miss Sunshine" -- its baroque family dynamics, the faux-sunny spotlight it shines on dark domestic places. And, of course, Carell, who played against type then, and does so now, and is a revelation. Perhaps it shouldn't be so remarkable: He's always struck this reviewer as a mediocre comedian, and a major actor. He showed it in "Sunshine" and he's even better here.
PLOT A 14-year-old, condemned to a vacation with his mother's loathsome boyfriend, comes into his own.
RATING PG-13 (adult content, vulgarity, brief drug reference)
CAST Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb.
BOTTOM LINE Standard story told intelligently, poignantly and with a great deal of mirth.