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‘The Way Way Back,’ a superb coming-of-age film, demands your attention

This film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight shows from left Rob Corddry AmandPeet Liam James Toni Collette Steve Carell

This film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight shows, from left, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Liam James, Toni Collette and Steve Carell in a scene from "The Way Way Back." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Claire Folger) ORG XMIT: NYET518

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Duncan Liam James

Trent Steve Carell

Owen Sam Rockwell

Susanna AnnaSophia Robb

Pam Toni Collette

Joan Amanda Peet

Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: August 6, 2013 6:05AM

You don’t need to have been a shy teenage boy forced to spend the summer with his single mom’s jerk of an overbearing, hypocritical boyfriend at his family’s longtime beach house to appreciate Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s absolutely superb coming-of-age film “The Way Way Back.”

But if you were, it probably would add another layer of understanding for those who have suffered through that kind of relationship.

While I was fortunate enough never to have a potential stepfather thrust into my life, as is the case with Liam James’ Duncan character in “The Way Way Back,” I certainly can empathize that 14-year-old’s frustration, humiliation and sense of being lost in a place he truly despises.

The name of the summer house, nestled in an East Coast beach community, is “The Riptide,” certainly an ironically chosen moniker for the potentially dangerous and life-changing moves that occur within it.

Duncan is ferried to that externally charming seasonal neighborhood by Trent, played by Steve Carell in one of his most deliciously unpleasant roles. From the film’s opening scene, where we only see Carell’s hard glances reflected in the rear-view mirror of his vintage station wagon, it’s immediately established that Trent is a grade-A SOB, someone I’d call a real “rick” (and add a “p” to the front of that word). That is made obvious during that opening car trip when he badgers Duncan into rating himself “on a scale of one to 10.” Not really wanting to participate, Duncan thinks he can satisfy Trent by giving himself a 6 — of course he’s crushed when Trent dubs him a 3.

Trent is clearly focused on forcing Duncan and his mom, Pam (played with perfect subtlety by Toni Collette), to merge as a family with him and his own daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin).

From the get-go, we regard all of this through Duncan’s insightful, if insecure point of view. He’s desperately sad that his never-seen father has left his mom and moved off to San Diego with a much younger new woman. Duncan can’t understand why he’s forced to spend his summer break with this awful man when he would prefer to be out in California with his father.

The answer to that will come later in the movie and needn’t be revealed here, but it’s that yearning for escape from Trent’s party-central beach house that leads Duncan to hop on a discarded girl’s bike and seek something else.

That “something else” is a nearby water park, run by Owen (Sam Rockwell), a guy whose laidback “management style” is somewhere between “casual” and “non-existent.”

The relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan is truly the crux of what makes “The Way Way Back” so special. Owen uses his joke-cracking, nonchalant attitude to break down Duncan’s incredible lack of self-worth and crash through the shell that has kept this obviously great kid so lonely and unhappy.

Duncan ends up secretly working at the Water Wizz park as Owen’s gofer and general cleanup guy, but in the process, he finds himself and makes a bunch of new friends with the park employees (including funny characters Faxon and Rash wrote in for themselves).

A big part of what makes this movie work so well are its crisp, zinger-filled script and the strong cast. Of course, Liam James provides the strong foundation that anchors the rest of the film’s excellent elements.

Perfectly cast as Duncan, this young Canadian actor has a true gift; he can communicate a litany of emotions just by a quick glance or a single word of dialogue.

He’s matched by Carell and Collette, as well as by Allison Janney in an absolutely hilarious (yet poignant) performance as the boozy, bossy yet terribly needy next-door neighbor and party-hearty neighbors played by Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Maya Rudolph also is wonderful and nurturing as Owen’s assistant, who obviously is in love with him despite his annoying lack of a work ethic. And AnnaSophia Robb adds just the perfect touch as Duncan’s gorgeous young neighbor, who is also struggling, in a somewhat different way, with many of the same issues of loss.

Co-writers/directors Faxon and Rash have created a little gem of a film. Without question, “The Way Way Back” is the best coming-of-age movie of the summer and should be seen by audiences of all ages. Packaged in a wonderfully entertaining way, its many lessons about how to treat people and respect differences are right up there on the screen.

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