Every child seems to have that transformative season in their lives – the one moment where they realize who they want to be, what they want to believe, what they want to do. For 14 year old Duncan (Liam James), that season is a summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her dickish boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent’s older daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). An introvert, Duncan is forced on the vacation when he would rather be visiting his dad in San Diego. Upon arrival, he’s pushed into an almost stereotypical cast of characters: the drunk divorcee next door, her cute daughter and nerdy younger son with a wandering eye, Trent’s friends who love to party, and Steph’s “cool” beach friends. Thrust into uncomfortable situations, he seems to want to escape it all – wearing jeans on the beach and averting his gaze when forced to hang out with Steph (and her friends), cleaning up the dirty dinner plates after watching his mom run around drunk with Trent (and his friends), realizing that he can’t escape being forced to hang out with the neighbor’s son (and his total lack of friends). He finds a bike in the garage and escapes.
It’s only once free of the “family” that he is able to find refuge at Water Wizz, the local water park that has seen its better days. Initially just content to sit on a bench and watch people go by, Duncan ends up making friends with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner of the park, who enlists him to work there for the summer. Duncan’s transformation begins – realizing that he’s not who he thought he was (or who others viewed him as), he can be more, and he doesn’t have to go home the same way he came.
The cast is terrific overall – Liam is well cast as a painfully shy young teenager, never playing it as a cliche; Steve Carrell is an absolutely believable dickhead, despite being one of the most charming guys out there; Toni Collette turns in another amazing performance; even the supporting cast includes standouts such as Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph, and Rob Corddry.
The real star of the show? Sam Rockwell as Owen. I’m an unabashed Sam Rockwell fan to begin with (come on, Galaxy Quest anyone?), but with this role, he truly breaks out of his mold. Playing the part as an almost lackadaisical Peter Pan, he’s equal parts pure condensed Sam Rockwell and Meatballs-era Bill Murray – filled with humor and joy while always seeming to be somewhat missing the point of the whole situation. He finds good in Duncan even when others don’t, but doesn’t seem to have a handle on his own life at times.
Written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (the same team who wrote The Descendants), the film is sweet and summery without being overly saccharine. In other hands, it would be another stereotypical “coming of age” film: young underachiever finds himself amidst a group of wacky supporting characters. Here, Rash and Faxon have managed to really imbue the script with heart and realism, balancing Duncan’s happiness at the waterpark and Owen’s lighthearted guidance against his tense relationships at home.
Sure, there are misses: the drama at home drags a bit, some of the characters tread a bit too close to parody at times, and the eventual love interest is probably just a bit too much for our fair Duncan. That said, it’s a terrific and touching movie about finding out who you really are, without ever feeling like it’s trying to pull your heartstrings.