This warm and upbeat coming-of-age story is brought to life by some dazzling comic writing and the wonderful performances of Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney. In the hands of other screenwriters the familiar plot – 14 year-old boy forced to holiday with mum and her new boyfriend in an unfamiliar seaside location – would give us just another teen angst movie, but Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who picked up Oscars for their writing on The Descendants and who co-direct this film) create a palette of quirky characters and load the dialogue with gems of sharp banter – especially for Rockwell & Janney. It’s really hard not to like – even if events are forced somewhat to get the outcome we know is going to happen.
The film kicks off with Trent (Steve Carell) driving his station-wagon to his long-time holiday house on the coast. With him are his mean-girl daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), his new girlfriend Pam (Toni Collette), and her son – the very awkward 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James). Within moments it’s clear that Trent is an obnoxious prat and he’s going to make Duncan’s life a misery. The embarrassing madness of the adult world is confirmed when the yet-to-be-blended family arrive and are bombarded by their well juiced, well-meaning, don’t-hold-back-neighbour Betty (Janney) who manages to innocently push everyone’s buttons while clutching her third cocktail. Duncan hides as fast as he can, ignoring even the attempts of Betty’s teen daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) to be friendly. The next day he escapes even further – ending up at a tacky theme park run by the rebellious and charismatic Owen (Rockwell), and a hilarious group of employees. Duncan’s rites of passage begin.
It’s refreshing to see Carell playing against type as a man we come to loath, and Collette in subdued form as the passive mother who is unsure how to deal with the conflict between son and boyfriend. But the darker, hard-hitting moments that come with divorce and distrust are well and truly eclipsed by the joyous journey that Duncan takes when he hits the water park each day. There, besides Rockwell who steals the show as surrogate Dad, Duncan is looked after, entertained and challenged by an alternative family of characters including long-suffering Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) and the wonderfully neurotic Lewis (played by Rash himself). With the strong cast in great form and the high quality writing, the first time directing duo really can’t go wrong. It’s a fun ride.