The summer movie season has had its highlights for me (Much Ado About Nothing, The Great Gatsby, and – admittedly – Despicable Me 2). But it’s been the blockbusters that have often been biggest letdowns. Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and The Wolverine were all pretty underwhelming, each reaping as much destruction on their worlds as possible (and then some). Maybe I’m just tired of all of the buildings collapsing.
Yesterday, I found the perfect antidote in The Way Way Back, which tells the story of the 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who is forced to spend the summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) at Trent’s beach house. Described as “spring break for adults,” the beach transforms Trent, Duncan’s mom, and all of their neighbors into oversized adolescents, drinking and playing all day, and getting stoned at night. Duncan escapes to a nearby water park and gets a job, finding some unexpected guidance in his fellow employees.
The film could be mistaken as merely a sentimental coming-of-age story, but The Way Way Back strikes a deeper emotional chord. Scott Tobias of The Dissolve (Pitchfork’s new website about film, which I heartily recommend) wrote a negative review of the film in which he described it as implausible and predictable. His first paragraph was of particular interest to me.
“Duncan spends half the movie wearing an expression somewhere between mopey and eerily absent, as if he’s gone beyond ordinary teenage malaise and half-checked out of consciousness altogether…It would be one thing if Duncan were merely an unformed mass of quirks and emotions, but he’s such a blank that it’s a wonder why anyone takes an interest in him, the audience included.”
It’s true. Duncan doesn’t have much “social utility,” if you will. In the opening scene of the movie when Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10, Duncan answers that he’s a 6. Trent shoots that down and says, “I think you’re a 3.” Duncan carries this rating around with him the entire film. It mistakenly confirms the feeling of worthlessness that he’s understandably developed in a family in which nobody really loves him. His mom tries to love him but fails, caught as she is between him and Trent. Duncan’s father is out on the West Coast, and like a lot of kids from broken families, the only solution Duncan sees is to shut down emotionally and shut everyone out. There isn’t any reason for anybody to take an interest in Duncan – he’s pure foolishness to the eyes of the world – which is why it’s so great when people do reach out to him.
Owen, the care-free manager of the water park (played by the always fantastic Sam Rockwell), is the one who sees worth in Duncan, and he sets out to help him see this worth as well. He gives Duncan a job at the water park where he starts to come out of his shell interacting with the eccentric staff. While the adults disappear into irresponsibility, Duncan flourishes in responsibility. The water park becomes his sanctuary where he is free to be vulnerable, be loved, and even dance a little. When Duncan tells Owen about Trent’s rating of him as a “three” Owen forcefully points out, “that’s not about you. That’s about him.” You can see Duncan’s identity as a “three” being shattered by Owen and the rest of the water park staff.
Towards the end, Owen physically places himself between Duncan and the judgmental and imposing law-figure, Trent. Owen intercedes (!) for him. Owen doesn’t make Trent’s judgment go away, but he frees Duncan from being ruled by it. This freedom makes a new Duncan whom his family is baffled by. No longer is he the angry kid trying not to be seen; he’s smiling, laughing, and hopeful.
So, yes, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s the beauty of grace. Our relationship with Christ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. How can he see us as people worth dying for when we are the way we are? But it’s Christ who comes and rescues us, intercedes for us, and gives us new identities. So, if you want a reminder of that (and just want to smile widely for a couple of hours) definitely forego the superhero flicks and check out The Way Way Back.