(director/writer: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash; cinematographer: John Bailey; editor: Tatiana S. Riegel; music: Rob Simonsen; cast: Steve Carell (Trent), Toni Collette (Pam), Allison Janney (Betty), AnnaSophia Robb (Susanna), Sam Rockwell (Owen), Maya Rudolph (Caitlin), Liam James (Duncan), Rob Corddry (Kip), Amanda Peet (Joan), Zoe Levin (Steph), Jim Rash (Lewis), Nat Faxon (Roddy), Maya Rudolph (Caitlin), River Alexander (Peter); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Kevin J. Walsh/Tom Rice; Fox Searchlight; 2013)
The character-laden pic seamlessly blends together comedy with dramatic serious life lessons, and is observant, poignant and its heart is in the right place.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The directing debut of Oscar-winning writers for The Descendants, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, is successful. The coming-of-age comedy/drama is seen through the eyes of the rejected nerdy 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James). The character-laden pic seamlessly blends together comedy with serious dramatic life lessons, and is observant, poignant and with its heart in the right place.

Unhappy, moping, shy adolescent Duncan (Liam James, Canadian) sits in the reverse-facing seat in the back of mom’s boyfriend’s station wagon (how the film got its awkward title), as he goes on a forced summer vacation with his divorced harried caterer mom Pam (Toni Collette), her insensitive asshole bossy divorced boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his sourpuss boy crazy daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). The tone of the pic is set when Trent asks Duncan during the car ride to rate himself from a scale 1 to 10, and when the kid reluctantly answers 6 Trent chimes in that the correct answer should be 3.

They will be staying at Trent’s sea-side summer cottage, Riptide. Trent has a ready-made cast of beach house friends that include Betty (Allison Janney), the overfriendly, loudmouth, boozy, oversexed divorced neighbor and her unhappy high school aged daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and her nerdy rejected young eye-patch wearing son Peter (River Alexander). When Susanna realizes the socially awkward Duncan is just as miserable there as she is, she makes contact with him in measured conversations and Duncan develops a summer crush on the older girl.

To get away from the phony gaiety of the summer vacationers that he can’t share in and some of the adult hanky-panky, Duncan secretly bikes off to Water Wizz, the local amusement park, where he’s befriended by the outrageous rebellious park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) and gets a daytime summer gig without letting his family know. Given a chance to blossom at the park under the gentle and amusing mentoring of Owen, Duncan smiles for the first time and meets the other decent park employees that include the dutiful Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), a love interest of Owen, the cheerful swim slide operator Roddy (Nat Faxon) and the droll humored effete equipment booth operator Lewis (Jim Rash).

Though its sitcom material is over-familiar, the excellent performances and the likeability factors of Liam and Rockwell teaming up to mesh so well together, keep it entertaining without going for too much slickness. Some comedy set-pieces fall flat, like the ones with the white boy trying to dance like a black man. But overall the comedy was sharp and effective. The acting was uniformly great. Carell as the pic’s dick and Collette as the sympathetic single-mom trying to rebound after a heart-breaking divorce, turn in superb performances that shows at times a good cast can even overcome its stale material. Aside from its funny moments, the pic sends a good message on how detrimental to the health of youngsters can be the onslaught of psychological bullying at home if left unchecked.

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