Most screen teenagers come across like either fumbling nerd caricatures or miniature Fonzies; with his pale skin and sloped shoulders, the young hero of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s summertime dramedy resembles nothing so much as a mollusk without a shell. Stranded at a beach house with his frazzled mom (Toni Collette) and prospective stepdad (Steve Carell), Duncan (Liam James) is so uncomfortable in his own skin that it’s often hard to look at him. Even by adolescence-is-hell standards, this poor sap is the embodiment of how ugly the so-called wonder years can be for some—a painful notion that’s as close as Faxon and Rash’s directorial debut comes to evoking an emotional response that hasn’t been sifted through dozens of nigh-identical films.
Naturally, there’s also a mentor figure—in this case, the local water-park manager (Sam Rockwell)—whose bravado masks deeper disappointments with life; a cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) who inexplicably takes a shine to our gawky hero; and a gaggle of grown-ups who make adulthood seem like something to be avoided at all costs. The film at least avoids a tidy “…and that was the summer that changed my life” wrap-up, but when what comes before the end credits feels so prefab, you might as well throw in a cribbed happy ending.
Follow Sam Adams on Twitter: @SamuelAAdams