The summer movie. They're each a coming-of-age story set at a summer camp, a vacation home, or an unwanted sports/school activity, marked by awkwardness, humourous supporting characters, and existential struggles for adolescent protagonists. There are the '80s flicks like Summer School, Stand By Me, Dazed and Confused, and Dirty Dancing. There are the more recent summer films, like Adventureland, Wet Hot American Summer, The Wackness, and this year's The Kings of Summer. Then you have the classics like American Graffiti, Grease ("summer lovin', happened so fast!") and Bill Murray's big screen debut in 1979, Meatballs.
The Way, Way Back falls in line with the summer movie themes--awkward teens, miserable experience in a beautiful vacation spot, hilarious side characters, etc.--without slipping into cliches or sentimentality. The opening scene features 14-year-old Duncan (perfectly portrayed by young actor, Liam James) sitting in the back of a Buick. A brief conversation with his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), is incredibly demeaning--when asked what he'd rate Duncan on a scale of 1 to 10, Trent gives him a 3. Duncan's awkward eyes and iPod earbuds designed to block out the world reminded me of so many other young teens with the same internal question--am I really just a 3? Do I really matter? Is life always going to be this difficult?
Duncan arrives at Trent's vacation home with his mom (Toni Collette) to find that it's going to be a terrible summer. Trent's friends and neighbours are all annoying and shallow, with the adults having their own version of a spring break binge. Plenty of late-night parties and alcohol consumption leave their teen children feeling abandoned and bored. The only bright point is Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the next door neighbour with her own parental struggles. Bored and lonely, Duncan finds a bike in Trent's garage and goes wandering the beach town, stumbling upon the town's water park. The park's manager, a quick-witted goofball named Owen (Sam Rockwell), comes alongside Duncan and ends up offering him a job for the summer.
Duncan begins to live in two different worlds. In the world of Trent and the vacation home, he is aloof, ignored, and viewed as an annoyance to be tolerated. In the world of the water park, he has authority, autonomy, responsibility, and community. With Trent and his friends, Duncan is inferior and boring. With Owen and the water park employees, Duncan is a beloved peer. With Trent, Duncan is a 3. With Owen, Duncan is a 10. It's not that Duncan is being hypocritical by living two different lives; he's embarking on the adolescent journey of autonomy, finding his own sense of self in the world, trying on a variety of identities to see which one truly fits best. And water park Duncan is winning the identity contest, thanks to Owen's invitation into his world.
Owen embodies what it means to be a place-sharer, a mentor who steps into the messiness of a young life and becomes an advocate and guide, even if for only a brief summer season. Owen's life certainly isn't perfect; he's a bit directionless and irresponsible, potentially costing him his own romantic endeavors. Yet his learns a bit of responsibility from Duncan, just as he teaches Duncan how to have fun and grow in self-confidence. It's a beautiful picture of discipleship, with Owen and Duncan both emerging from the summer season as transformed in subtle and profound ways.
Marked by humour, authenticity, and charm, The Way, Way Back is not only a summer movie; it's a youth ministry movie. Its strongest parallel might be one of my favourite youth ministry movies, About A Boy--an irresponsible goofball of a man comes alongside an insecure adolescent boy and his neurotic single mother (portrayed by Toni Collette in both films), finding the unexpected relationship to be transformative. Youth workers: you owe it to yourself to go see this film. Take your adult volunteer leaders. Have parents watch it and identify the Owens in their children's lives. The Way, Way Back is an encouraging portrayal of our vocational calling to come alongside young people, see the best in them, and experience transformation, all during the three months of summer.