Ever since it debuted at Sundance in January, “The Way, Way Back” has been touted as a breakthrough for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers of “The Descendants” who here move into writing-directing chairs. That turns out to be hype: A coming-of-age comedy-drama set on our own Buzzards Bay (and other local sites), the movie’s a minor pleasure rather than a major work. But minor pleasures have their place, especially in summertime, and at its best “The Way, Way Back” goes down like a popsicle on a hot July day.
And the cast is certainly worth a look, even if the relatively unknown Liam James (TV’s “The Killing” and “Psych”) has the main role of Duncan, a teenager marooned in the most awkward years of adolescence. Not that the adults are making it easier. His unseen father has high-tailed it to the West Coast and his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), has taken up with a snide, short-tempered car salesman named Trent (Steve Carell). This is a first — Carell playing a jerk — and he’s good enough to remind you of all the tinpot dictators you had to put up with when you were Duncan’s age. On a scale of 1 to 10, Trent rates Duncan a 3. To his face.
Arriving at the new beau’s summer house for an extended stay, Duncan has the stooped, miserable posture of a human question mark. Trent’s teenage daughter (Zoe Levin) doesn’t want to be seen anywhere near this worm, but at least Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), quite literally the girl next door, tries to pry him out of his shell. Still, the setup is a boy’s worst nightmare, especially when mom and Trent sneak off to the dunes to get high. Off Duncan goes — on a little girl’s princess bike that he finds in the garage — to anywhere that isn’t here.
He ends up at Water Wizz, a tattered but exuberant water park that actually exists in East Wareham — thanks for the plug, guys — where he finds a misfit family of employees lorded over by Owen, a grown-up kid played by Sam Rockwell at his Sam Rockwelliest. Motormouthed, impulsive, happily irresponsible, he’s everything Duncan isn’t, and he instinctively takes the kid under his wing to give him Life Lessons.
Yes, it’s a lot like 2009’s “Adventureland” minus the bales of weed, and the comparison doesn’t always flatter the newer film. “The Way, Way Back” is skimpier on inspiration and slacker in the telling, and you can tell it’s a movie directed by writers because the scenes often play out longer than necessary. Faxon and Rash have paced the story at an amble, and only occasionally does that result in a nugget of observation that feels genuinely fresh.
But the movie feels lived-in, which makes up for a lot. Faxon is a local boy -- he grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea — and “The Way, Way Back” has the salt tang and humming air of a beach community in high summer. (The title, by the way, refers to the back seat of a vintage Buick station wagon, the site of Duncan’s exile both literally and metaphorically. Is that a New England thing? We had a way-back seat in our Rambler when I was growing up, too.)
The writer-directors both began their careers as actors — Rash plays the Dean on “Community” — and they give themselves genial second-rung parts as longtime Water Wizz workers. Maya Rudolph plays Owen’s exasperated co-worker/occasional girlfriend as if she just rolled out of bed, and Allison Janney whoops it up as a summertime neighbor, as cheerfully awful a mom as she was in “Away We Go,” also with Rudolph. Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet play friends of Trent’s — the latter with a dangerously roving eye — and “The Way, Way Back” is especially smart about the temptations of summer cottage living, the grown-ups acting like depraved children while their kids look on, appalled.
Mostly, though, the story stays close to Duncan and Owen, the former the movie’s paralyzed Super-ego, the latter its messy Id. How you feel about “The Way, Way Back” may come down to how easily you tolerate Sam Rockwell when the actor’s phasers are set on stun. I thought he was the best thing here, and I know people who thought he was the worst. But it’s true that James’s subtle, naturalistic portrayal of adolescent gracelessness gets upstaged by Rockwell’s relentless schpritz.
So the movie’s a mixed bag, and yet I’m glad I saw it, and I bet you will be, too. “The Way, Way Back” knows its turf (and surf) and renders it with accuracy and affection, and it has its thumb squarely on the loping pulse of summer and the memories we pack for the long ride home.