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THE WAY, WAY BACK

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B

This summer’s collection of likable coming-of-age movies is increased by this alternately charming, penetrating and rote comedy-drama from the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who among other things collaborated with Alexander Payne on the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Descendants” but here direct too, as well as taking supporting roles in front of the camera. “The Way, Way Back” covers familiar territory, but for the most part in a pleasantly quirky fashion.

One of the period film’s more unusual aspects is that Steve Carell, usually the befuddled nice guy, plays against type as Trent, the controlling boyfriend of single mom Pam (Toni Collette). Their relationship is tested when they go off for the summer to Trent’s beachfront house on the Atlantic coast south of Boston, taking along his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) and her son Duncan (Liam James). The focus is on the fourteen-year old boy, whom Trent treats with casual condescension, but who finds an unlikely friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), a wild and crazy guy who runs a local water park and not only gives the kid a job there but encourages him to come out of his shell. By August Duncan’s grown up, and his mother has come to see Trent for what he is.

“The Way, Way Back”—a title that refers to the seat in the rear of Trent’s station wagon, where Duncan’s forced to sit during the drive to the coast—has an arc without many surprises, but though the destination is pretty much preordained, the journey there is largely enjoyable, thanks to some sharp writing and a winning cast. As Duncan—the linchpin of the script—James could hardly be called charismatic, but his understated approach pays dividends when the character’s reserve begins to melt away and he begins to enjoy himself—and become angry over his mother’s mistreatment by Trent. Carell is convincingly odious, especially when he teams up with an unpleasant “swinging” couple named Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet). And although you might want to slap Collette’s Pam for her obtuseness in not immediately seeing Trent for the cad he obviously is, the actress uses subtle gestures to suggest the character’s gradual, pained recognition, while Allison Janney comes close to stealing every scene she’s in as Trent’s garrulous neighbor. River Alexander is a geeky charmer as her put-upon son and AnnaSophia Robb sweetness itself as his older sister, who befriends Duncan while Trent’s daughter Stephanie (Zoe Levin) enjoys humiliating him.

But most of the movie’s pizzazz comes from the folks at the water park, especially Rockwell, who’s obviously taken a page from Bill Murray’s “Meatballs” playbook to make Owen a goofy Peter Pan type whose lackadaisical exterior conceals a warm heart. Maya Rudolph brings great comic exasperation to his put-upon assistant, while Faxon and Rash lend their expert timing to Lewis and Roddy, the former the straitlaced, put-upon souvenir-shop clerk and the latter the gregarious overseer of the park’s water slide and teaches Duncan the lascivious tricks of his trade.

Like “The Kings of Summer,” the other genial coming-of-age comedy-drama in theatres at the moment, “The Way, Way Back” is a modestly-budgeted independent production. But John Bailey’s cinematography takes advantage of the locations in Marshfield, Massachusetts, and all the other technical credits are fine. And the score—combining original music by Bob Simonsen and a potpourri of songs supervised by Linda Cohen—adds mood and emotional color to the proceedings.

After you’ve gorged yourself on the studio blockbusters, here’s an agreeable, insightful if uneven smaller film that can serve as a tasty palate cleanser. Give it a try.

SOME GIRL(S)

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Men usually behave badly in the works of Neil LaBute—one need only think of the cruelties that delight them in “In the Company of Men.” But in “Some Girl(s),” the one-act 2005 play that he’s adapted for the screen with director Daisy von Scherler Mayer, the main character, here called simply Man (though “Guy” is an apparent alternative), appears to be attempting some rapprochement with women that he’s wronged in the past. Of course, this is LaBute country, and all is not quite what it seems.

In Scherler Mayer’s film, Adam Brody is well cast as the fellow, capturing the character’s combination of eagerness and caginess. He’s a writer, proud of his published work, who’s about to get married to a young nurse who remains unseen through the proceedings. Apparently moved by the coming nuptials to make amends with former lovers, he travels from city to city, inviting five of them to his hotel rooms (virtually identical from place to place) to reminiscence and apologize. (The script adds the fifth woman to the four that were included in the London and New York productions of 2005-2006, as well as the Los Angeles one that followed in 2008. In some stage versions—like one by the Second Thought Theatre in Dallas in 2009—the fifth episode was included.)

The first is Sam (Jennifer Morrison), in Seattle. She’s the high school girlfriend whom he took advantage of and then dumped on the eve of their prom, and though now married she’s never forgotten his cruelty. Then comes Tyler (Mia Maestro), his free-wheeling college squeeze in Chicago, who doesn’t seem at all fazed over the fact that they split up. Next are Boston and Lindsay (Emily Watson), an uptight professor still bitter over the grad-school affair that her older husband discovered and taking a modicum of revenge for it. The fourth stop—the one omitted in the original stage productions—brings a confrontation with Reggie (Zoe Kazan), the younger sister of his best friend, who’s still obsessed with him and accuses him of having had sex with her when she was still underage. And finally there’s Bobbi (Kristen Bell) in Los Angeles, one of a pair of identical twins and perhaps the person who comes closest to being a true object of his love—but who is far more interested in deprecating his self-justification than commiserating with his increasingly obvious uncertainty about his impending marriage. Still, it’s in the course of their reunion that the real reason for the man’s journey emerges, and as usual with LaBute, it has more to do with manipulation than genuine emotion.

“Some Girl(s),” which reflects the phrase that Guy always uses to refer to other women, even the one he’s going to wed, doesn’t have the lacerating impact of LaBute’s best work. But even a minor effort like this one contributes to his perennial theme—the damage human beings (usually men, though on occasion women) can inflict on one another for their own often purely nasty ends. And though Scherler Mayer doesn’t do much to open up the piece—a few scenes on planes, in airports, and of hotel exteriors hardly mitigate the stagebound feel—she manages the individual episodes well, using close-ups and fluent camera moves to maximum effect.

And she’s chosen her cast expertly. With Brody an appropriately smarmy connecting presence, the women all make strong impressions. The most striking is Kazan, who paints a portrait of an adolescent whose life was ruined by a slightly older, more experienced boy. But Morrison, Maestro and Bell are almost equally effective. Only Watson comes off rather arch, the result more of the character than the performance. The technical credits are little more than adequate, a reflection of the modest budget, but Rachel Morrison’s cinematography uses the confined settings to good effect, and Michael Darrow’s editing brings the piece in at a crisp ninety minutes.

“Some Girl(s)” doesn’t pack the wallop of “In the Company of Men,” where one woman suffers multiple indignities rather than their being spread around among five. But even this lesser LaBute offers a nice twist to his characteristically stinging dissection of man’s inhumanity to man—and especially woman.