A lazy summer vacation at a free beach house.
Sounds pretty idyllic unless you're a 14-year-old boy being dragged to the cottage owned by your divorced mother's new boyfriend, the one who calls you "Buddy" even as he wounds with an insult -- poorly disguised as friendly advice -- in his station wagon as the other passengers are asleep.
Trent (Steve Carell) asks the teen, Duncan (Liam James), how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. The boy balks but finally suggests a 6.
3.5 stars = Very Good
Liam James, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette.
PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material.
"I think you're a 3," Trent counters. "I don't see you putting yourself out there, bud." And this is the man who might just marry Duncan's caterer-mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and become his stepfather.
That exchange makes "The Way, Way Back" sound like a downer, but it turns into a coming-of-age summer cocktail, a perfect blend of poignant drama and comedy. The frothy mix of tart and sweet offers characters who may remind you of yourself or that acquaintance who likes to overshare.
"The Way, Way Back" deposits Duncan, Pam, Trent and Trent's popular daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), at a house christened Riptide next to one aptly named Booze Cruisin' and occupied by Too Much Information queen Betty (Allison Janney) and her children, including teenager Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).
Duncan is an outsider even, or especially, at the beach, hunched over on the sand in his jeans, plaid shirt and sneakers while everyone splashes in the water.
But the introverted teen finds an unlikely refuge at the nearby water park where wisecracking manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) recognizes something of himself in Duncan and takes a friendly or big brotherly interest in him.
While Pam, Trent, Betty and visiting pals (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry) act like adults on spring break, Duncan secretly takes a job at the water park and flourishes. He dons swim trunks, ogles some girls in bikinis, gains some confidence and has fun with people who constitute a wacky makeshift family.
But the 14-year-old is still sleeping under the roof of the man who called him a 3, setting the stage for the inevitable showdown.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who shared "The Descendants" screenwriting Oscar with Alexander Payne, wrote and directed "The Way, Way Back" in Massachusetts and cast themselves in small roles as park employees. "The Way, Way Back" is the simple done superbly, and nothing in 2013 made me laugh or smile (or cringe) as much.
Liam, who will turn 17 in August and may be familiar as Jack Linden on AMC's "The Killing," makes you feel his misery and loneliness, and it's a joy to watch him come into his own.
Adolescent and adult angst bobs to the surface early and often, along with fun, the power that comes with standing up for yourself or someone you love, and mastering the twists and turns of life and the Devil's Peak water slide.
Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront, Galleria in Mt. Lebanon and Manor in Squirrel Hill.