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Film review: The Way, Way Back (12A)

Last of the summer whine

Here is one of those summer movies that makes you grateful just for the fact it doesn't contain aliens, zombies, werewolves, superheroes, spin-off toys, or any trace of Adam Sandler. The Way, Way Back is a modest little squib about growing up and the rotten step-families that fate sometimes lands you with. Let's not pretend it's anything but minor league, but within those parameters it puts on a feisty show and features a handful of winning performances.

Its mopy centre is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), exiled in the back seat – the way, way back, as it's known in the US – of a station wagon owned by his mum's new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). They're driving up to a Massachusetts seaside town for a summer break. Duncan misses his dad, who's flown the coop to the West Coast, and he broods in silence as the miles drip by.

In the opening scene, Trent picks up on the boy's unhappiness and quizzes him about it, seeming to draw the kid out. On a scale of 1 to 10, he asks, how would he rate himself? Duncan, thrown by the question, eventually mumbles "Maybe a six?" We cut back to Trent, his eyes appraising him in the rear-view mirror: "I'd say you're more like a three," he says. It's a shock, not just for its casual maliciousness, but because Steve Carell says it: after too many movies in which he has ingratiated himself as the lovable everyman, Steve Carell is back to being the jerk boss he was born to play in The Office. Bravo.

And the terrible thing for Duncan is that his mum, Pam (Toni Collette), doesn't know it. She's just happy to be wanted again, and isn't inclined to heed Duncan's dread of Trent as his potential stepfather. "He wants us to be a family," she says, consoling. "That's what he says, but it not what he does," replies the kid. Once installed at their holiday home, the subtle humiliations continue. When they go out sailing, Trent insists that Duncan wears an oversized life jacket – he looks like he's being swallowed by a giant orange car seat. Liam James, shoulders stooped and brow furrowed, does a good job of conveying the misery of adolescent shyness, and at times his antagonism with Carell feels just a whisker off a horror movie. (Carell, with his manic gleam and narcissistic air, would have been a good choice in the remake of The Stepfather).

The film is the work of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won an Oscar as co-writers of The Descendants. They've not directed before, and it occasionally shows; scenes go on for too long, or else spell out the meaning too baldly. But there's a charm that keeps it alive and fresh. Duncan is thrown two lifelines, the first by the girl next door – the actual next door – Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who's bored like him, but he's too inept to catch at it. The second is Water Wizz, the local water park he discovers while on a lonely bike ride. Here he is taken under the playful, sardonic wing of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park's irresponsible manager, and given a job. Duncan loves it, loves the other misfit employees and the daft lore that has grown up around the park's shabby precincts. This is the surrogate family he's been looking for, and, somewhat improbably, he races off to join them every day without his actual family noticing.

By this stage it will be impossible not to be reminded of a similar – but far superior – coming-of-age movie, Adventureland (2009), in which Jesse Eisenberg played the sensitive outsider, Kristen Stewart the longed-for girl next door, and Ryan Reynolds the amusement park's cool operator. Greg Mottola's film worked its effects more ambiguously, and its character studies carried a sharper edge. It indulged a fondness for naff 1980s power-pop, which this film also plunders. It's hard to know who's more embarrassed, kids or adults, by the spectacle of Trent's former squeeze (Amanda Peet) singing along to Mr Mister's awful hit "Kyrie" (she thinks the line runs "Carry a laser", not "kyrie eleison"). And there's a blissfully silly moment when Owen appeals for "a hero" to help unblock the park's water chute: "I'm holding out for a hero," he adds, deadpan, then quoting the song line by line, to a sea of blank adolescent faces. To think: a generation untouched by Bonnie Tyler.

On such incidental pleasures does the film thrive. I loved Allison Janney as a blowsy loudmouth neighbour and the running argument she has with her boss-eyed kid about wearing an eye-patch. Maya Rudolph also does neat support work as a Water Wizz employee and off-on girlfriend of Owen. She has one great scene in which she explains to him precisely why she resents his life-and-soul-of-the-party act, and it may ring true for those who find Sam Rockwell's jokester hard to take: there is something obnoxious about the person who insists on playing the funny guy to the extent that everyone else is made to seem a square.

The movie is generally more forgiving in spirit, and it will touch a chord in anyone who once felt marooned in a world that didn't seem to care – viz. anyone who has been through adolescence. The Way, Way Back is definitely good in parts. If asked to rate it out of 10 I'd say: Maybe a six?