Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Review of "The Way,Way Back"

Nobody seems to have station wagons anymore -- the go-to family vehicle is a mini-van. So when the new film The Way, Way Back opens, with the 14 year-old protagonist, Duncan, is seen sitting in the way back of a Buick paneled station wagon, I wondered if it was a period film. It’s not. The car is the treasured “classic” possession of Duncan’s mother’s boyfriend Trent (played with grating smarminess by Steve Carell.) They’re on the road (along with Duncan’s mother and Trent’s daughter) to a beach house in a resort town, not just for a summer vacation, but to see if the car’s occupants can form a family.

Duncan sitting in the way (way) back of the wagon is a nice image of the boy’s adolescent isolation (as is the picture of Duncan in the film’s poster, where Duncan is sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool. That pool image is reminiscent of Ben [Dustin Hoffman] Braddock in The Graduate and doesn’t appear in the film).

His parent’s divorce and his own social awkwardness has not done wonders for Duncan’s self-esteem. Trent, his potential step-father, isn’t helping, either. Early on, he tells Duncan he’d rate Duncan a three on a one to ten scale. Of course, he says this just to help Duncan, you know.

At the beach town, Duncan tries to escape from his family by visiting a local water park. There he meets a park manager who takes an interest in Duncan (who stands out at the park as the one person wearing long pants). Sam Rockwell plays Owen, the park manager, in full Bill Murray circa Meatballs era wisecracking mode.

Owen takes Duncan under his wing, hiring him -- apparently for the job of listening to Owen’s tall tales. Owen just hangs out with Duncan, assuring the boy that he thinks he is a great guy.

Owen is doing what I was always taught is the work of good youth ministry: enter the world of young people in a nonjudgmental way. Just hang out with a good ear. And believe that kids are worth your time. Some call this kind of ministry “incarnational.” It’s following the model of Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1:14, NIV). God thought we humans were worth spending time with. Sometimes we adults forget that students are worth our time.

Carell’s Trent and Rockwell’s Owen are competing father figures, but one wants to get something from Duncan and the other is looking to give. Sometimes the thing adults look to get out of young people is a sense of superiority through verbal or even physical abuse. This is what led Jesus to talk about millstones tied around necks (Matthew 18:6).

I saw the film with my son, and heading for dinner afterwards, I caught myself making a sarcastic remark not at all unlike what Trent would have said. We like to think of ourselves as heroes in our own films, but quite often we are, in fact, playing villains in films starring others.

Jesus calls us to be supporting players in other people’s stories, because He was willing to be that for us.

(Rated PG-13 for language, and references to sex and drugs.)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Review of Rich Lowry's "Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream - and How We Can Do It Again" (Broadside Books, 2013)

The premise of this book should be quite obvious, but I hadn't given it much thought before. Abraham Lincoln did not start his political career wanting to win a bloody war, preserve the union or even free the slaves.

Because none of those things are not exactly in the purview of an Illinois legislator. Rich Lowry (editor of National Review) explores in this book Lincoln's fundamental political values through biography, primarily of his early career.

We also have images of young Lincoln reading by fire light, splitting wood and wrestling. The frontier boy and man in ill fitting buckskin. There is truth in all of that imagery. But what Lowry makes clear in his book is that it was Lincoln's motivating desire in life to leave the wilderness behind and remold himself into a modern, prosperous, even urban individual.

The American Dream of pursuing happiness, and yes, wealth, was not just a pretty picture in Lincoln's mind, but rather one of his deepest ambitions.

Lincoln often spoke of the importance of hard work and how it was key in one's life for advancement. He often quoted from Genesis about man earning bread from the sweat of one's brow. (It is interesting as he always seems to quote this Scripture positively, though it is part of Adam's curse.)

In his late teens, Lincoln was forced to work to pay off his father's debts. This led to his hatred of seeing others prosper due to other men's labor. Apparently, this drew him to a desire for fair laws of property, so no one could be swindled out of land; suspicion of confiscatory taxes; support of the right of unions to strike; and, yes, opposition to slavery.

Lowry points to the tendency of politicians to claim Lincoln as their own. Most recently, President Obama has encouraged the image of himself as a second 16th president, pointing to Lincoln's support of education and public works projects.

But Lowry ably argues that the first great Republican would remain a great Republican, and that the GOP needs to remember and embrace Lincoln's embrace and proclamation of values that go back to the nation's founding.