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.)

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