If someone were ever to get around to writing a dictionary of film types then the ‘feel good’ category would have to include a pointer to The Way Way Back. Which begs the question, how does a film that says nothing tangible about God set about warming a Christian’s heart?
The Way Way Back introduces us to Liam James as Duncan, a 14-year-old navigating troubled waters bordered by adolescent awkwardness, a family break-up and his mother’s new boyfriend. Trent, played by Steve Carell, is an aging Alpha Male who not-so-inwardly despises his girlfriend’s tongue-tied son, and mistakenly thinks he can bully him into a more acceptable shape. As they drive towards a family vacation at his beach house, Trent gives Duncan a taste of his unfortunate brand of medicine:
Trent: “Duncan! On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?”
Duncan: “I don’t know … a 6? “
Trent: “I think you’re a 3. Since I’ve been dating your mom, I don’t see you putting yourself out there bud. Maybe you could try getting that score up at my beach house this summer!”
Ouch! Yep, that’s going to help. Duncan’s mum, Pam (Toni Collette), is trying to look on the brightest side of her new relationship, given her marriage foundered on her husband’s infidelity. She tries to help her son do the same but it’s very clear to him and the viewer that the primary concern for the film’s parents is revisiting their own teen years. As the daughter of one of Trent’s hard-partying friends puts it, “That’s the power of this place – it’s spring break for adults.”
However this is not one of those hammed-up Hollywood coming of age films where Duncan realizes he’s ‘all he needs to be’ and emerges a confident somebody. No, quite the opposite. Duncan draws a blank on the life lessons until he meets Owen, the manager of the local water park played by Sam Rockwell. Owen isn’t perfect; he has his own maturity problems to solve. But the miracle he works is an everyday kind: he makes room for Duncan until this awkward boy finds he fits right in. He might have landed on the island of misfit toys, but it also happens to be somewhere he can call home.
The Way Way Back has lots of things to recommend it – laugh out loud comedy, insightful, not to mention some serious scene-stealing fun from TV comedy Community’s principal Jim Rash. But Rash and his co-writer/director Nat Faxon (they also penned The Descendants) have done us the greatest service by reminding us of love’s most endearing quality. It does not wait until we’re lovable. Owen changes Duncan’s life because he decides to value the heart under all of that awkwardness. And that’s why I think that, though Owen falls short in so many other respects, he will resonate with so many Christians.
God shows us what love is on an infinitely larger but strangely similar scale. He doesn’t wait for you or I to be worth loving; to be honest, our life-long determination to stand back from Him makes Duncan’s most fractious moments look adorable. But He goes about making room for us – choosing us before Creation, planning our salvation, sending His Son, setting aside a personal place in Heaven – because He also values the heart buried under all that sin. The difference is summer ends for Duncan, but we get to keep our best friend for eternity.
After a month of reviewing the biggest action, alien and comic blockbusters, this low-budget film gets my vote. Add it to your watch-list. You won’t regret the reminder that we can all find someone who makes us feel like we belong.
Release Date: August 1