Review: 'Way, Way Back' welcome summer movie detour

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The summer movie season has taken a huge but welcome detour with "The Way, Way Back," a feel-good coming-of-age dramedy that boasts the talents of a rising young actor named Liam James and rising dramatic actor named Steve Carell.

Dramatic actor ... Steve Carell? More on that later.

The film begins in the way, way back of a station wagon on a trip to an East Coast vacation home, where 14-year-old Duncan (James) -- relegated to the rear seat -- is asked by the driver -- his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Carell) -- where he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Duncan modestly answers a "6," but Trent points out that he's merely a "3."

It's going to be a long and dreadful summer vacation for Duncan.

Unable to reveal to his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), what sort of a mean-spirited jerk her beau is, the reclusive Duncan eventually finds safe harbor at a local water park, where its overgrown manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), and the other employees take the boy under their wings. For the first time in his awkward teenage life, Duncan is coming out of his shell, but the courage he needs to muster to tell his vulnerable mom about Trent's unforgiving ways is what he truly needs to clear the last hurdle.

The problem is, Pam is in serious denial about Trent, and the circle of adults they hang out with are nearly impossible to communicate with, acting out with behavior far more irresponsible than the kids in their presence.

See my review of the film on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Diana Pierce below.

James, who ably played Mireille Enos' son on the first two seasons of the AMC drama "The Killing," emerges like a seasoned pro in "The Way, Way Back," making us feel the sort of teenage angst that was best typified in the late, great John Hughes' teen classics. There's a little bit of romantic confusion thrown in the mix, too, as Duncan befriends a neighbor girl (AnnaSophia Robb) with similar parent issues.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, a pair of veteran actors who co-star in, and co-write and co-direct the film, expertly construct "The Way, Way Back," loosely based on Rash's experiences growing up. They're wonderful storytellers, and their first film together since co-winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2011's "The Descendants" proves that their success was definitely not a fluke.

While "The Way, Way Back tackles raw, complex emotions, the film is hardly about drudgery. There are several laugh-out-loud hilarious moments, mostly courtesy of the always great Rockwell and even greater Allison Janney -- who plays a honestly blunt and party-loving divorced mother of two. While her character is completely oblivious to sensitive issues -- your jaw will drop at some of the remarks she makes her young son -- she's still such a lovable character that her off-the-wall behavior will still have you in stitches.

Even though "The Way, Way Back" is at its heart an ensemble piece, Carell still manages to stand out, mostly because of his willingness to step out of the safe zone.

Carell, of course, has to this point mostly made his living as a comedy actor on NBC's "The Office," as well as several hit movies including "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Anchorman" and the wonderful voice of Gru in the "Despicable Me" films; but with "The Way, Way Back," he's in it for the straight-up drama. As a result, he delivers one of the most despicable characters of the summer movie season. Who knew that Carell playing an unforgiving jerk would be such a revelation?

After "The Way, Way Back," Carell fans have something new and exciting to look way, way forward to.

"The Way, Way Back," rated PG-13, 3 1/2 stars out of four.

See the trailer for "The Way, Way Back" below.

What other critics are saying ...

Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press gives "The Way, Way Back" 3 stars, saying it could have "great" instead of "merely good" if the film would have delved deeper in the characters of Trent and Pam and the motivation behind the mistreatment of Duncan.

Colin Covert of the Star Tribune gives the film 3 1/2 stars, calling the film a "nifty blend of humor, heart and drama." He also praises Faxon and Rash for the dynamic they create "between kids, parents and unrelated adults."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he also reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11.” As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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