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'The Way Way Back' review: Steve Carell is the step-dad from hell

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Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash; Screenwriters: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash; Starring: Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Liam James, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb; Running time: 103 mins; Certificate: 12A


Ever noticed that it never rains in rites-of-passage movies? Evidently, personal growth needs a long, hot summer, or else that's the view through the rose-tinted lens that filmmakers often use for looking back. Steve Carell's latest movie is a prime example (reminiscent of Adventureland) and yet, it doesn't feel forced. It's a sunny, funny and genuinely heart-warming watch.

In the starring role, newcomer Liam James is reminiscent of a young Tom Hanks with a certain gawky, everyman quality that gradually morphs to fit the mould of a smooth leading man. Conversely, Steve Carell breaks his Mr Nice Guy habit as the potential stepdad Trent, a nit-picking naysayer who singles out 14-year-old Duncan for subtly enforced methods of humiliation.

Toni Collette is Duncan's well-meaning but slightly weak-willed mother, echoing her turn in the similarly-themed Little Miss Sunshine. They're on holiday at an East Coast resort described by Duncan's next door neighbour Susanna (a button-nosed blonde with book smarts, played by AnnaSophia Robb) as offering "spring break for adults".

Toni Collette, Steve Carell in The Way, Way Back
Naturally, the only person not having fun is Duncan. James slopes around, shoulders hunched, not bothered about endearing himself to anyone - playing the victim without asking for sympathy - and yet, it's impossible not to feel for him. His anguish is palpable when, on a yacht filled with hot girls, Trent forces Duncan to wear a lifejacket that makes him stand out like a sore thumb.

Queasy laughs ensure, but it takes someone especially juvenile to make Duncan grow up. Sam Rockwell is ideally cast as Owen, the surreally wisecracking supervisor at Water Wizz, a low-tech water park that becomes Duncan's sanctuary and his training ground for adulthood. Owen gives him a job and makes him the 'straight man' in an unlikely comedy partnership.

He, too, inflicts some pain on Duncan, except that unlike Trent, his playful nudging forces the kid to come out of his shell (or lifejacket). Hardened cynics may wilt at the sight of the teenager robot-dancing his way out of a potentially hostile crowd, but the comic incidents are mostly simple and effective; like Owen announcing Duncan's romantic intentions towards Susanna over the tannoy.

In a comedy of embarrassments, James takes every knock on the chin and powers through, inadvertently winning you over. Still, he has trouble getting a handle on his popularity and writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (whose script for The Descendants won an Oscar) have as much fun observing Duncan tripping over himself as he hits his stride.

A case of sexual infidelity echoes The Descendants to provide a dramatic crescendo, except this is a much brighter, frothier kind of film. A last act of derring-do on the waterslide feels like too easy a shortcut to self-actualisation, but with sparky turns all round (Allison Janney is a hoot as Susanna's overbearing mum), this remains a fun ride with a spirit of optimism that invites you to dive in.

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