Finding Self-Worth on a Water Slide: 'The Way, Way Back'

Through the Window

thewaywaybackWhether it be pool days and ice pops, or long-lit evenings and ice cream trucks, “summer” means a lot of things to a lot of people. But there is one aspect of summertime that seems to transcend time and place, age and background: the family vacation.

The family vacation is a true-blue bit of Americana at its best—and in particular, the family vacation riddled with teen angst has been a topic celebrated onscreen for years. However, where famed family vacation films such as “National Lampoon’s Vacation” or “Dirty Dancing” follow the traditional road that highlights the quirks of family life or carefree summer love, the new film “The Way, Way Back” veers down a different path. Yes, the protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), still faces typical teen woes, like not knowing what to say to the cute girl next door and feeling misunderstood by the adults in his life. But deeper themes of family brokenness, loneliness, and the need for belonging develop in a way that not only makes the viewer feel for Duncan, but also add a level of vulnerability missing from a typical Griswold get-together.

It’s in the rear of the aforementioned wagon that we first meet 14-year-old Duncan. Terribly shy, terribly awkward, and terribly in need of a friend, he’s on his way to the beach with mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his teenage daughter (Zoe Levin). Duncan is overshadowed and all but forgotten, as his mom’s attention is focused on Trent—an insensitive man’s man who practically knocks Duncan to the ground every time he patronizingly calls him “buddy” —and his daughter, Steph, is way too cool to ever condescend to Duncan’s lowly dweebish status. Pam and Trent hope a summer at the beach will make it clear whether the mismatched quartet can form a new kind of family. But, whatever their hopes, it’s apparent from where Duncan’s sitting: He’s all alone and stuck way in the back.

When they arrive at their quintessential beach town destination, things only go downhill for poor Duncan. His mom repeatedly chooses Trent over him; it takes all of about 10 seconds for the summer sun to solidify Steph’s snobbery; and Betty, the neighbor-lady (Allison Janney), is a tactless boozer who keeps trying to set up play dates for Duncan and her Star Wars-obsessed son. Then, to make matters worse, Betty’s daughter appears on the scene. Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) provides the “brooding-crush-interest” that is required to make any family vacation movie complete, and insecure Duncan stammers his way through their first painful encounters. All this in only two days! Oh, the angst!

When Duncan discovers a little girl’s bike in the shed, he makes a break for it. He eventually finds himself at Water Wizz, a somewhat dilapidated water park with tube slides galore, and a big-kid-at-heart manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who seems to own only one pair of extra-large shorts. When Owen offers him a job, Duncan jumps at the chance. Water Wizz becomes his secret haven, his new job a confidence booster, and Owen, despite his lazy appearance, the friend Duncan so desperately needs.

While this is overall a lighthearted film, Duncan’s obvious feelings of displacement and his ensuing friendship with Owen give the movie a sense of depth that is often missing from the traditional summer film fare. There are no big explosions; no steamy romances; no scenes where Duncan ducks behind a tube slide and reappears dressed in an aqua Speedo and matching cape, ready to save the world.

Instead, what unfolds is an entertaining yet sincere story about a lonely boy who struggles to prove his worth to everyone—including himself. His friendship with Owen helps him on this journey, and is the heart of the film. Owen’s immediate acceptance of Duncan shows him to be trustworthy. His ability to both encourage and challenge Duncan gives the young teen the courage he needs to take risks and speak up on his own behalf. But ultimately, it is Owen’s kindness—no matter how off-the-cuff and casual it seems—that helps Duncan begin to believe in himself.

Without being contrived or preachy, “The Way, Way Back” also honestly looks at the complications and pain that can stem from separation, divorce, and unfaithfulness. There is not one successful marriage or “original” family unit in this film, and the events that play out reflect how this reality affects all the characters. As Susanna aptly puts it, summer at the beach “is like spring break for adults.” Unlike many beach movies where it’s the teens getting into trouble, it’s the adults in this story whose thoughtless antics and foolish actions create the most problems and cause others pain. Whether or not it was intentional, I found this portrayal of the new “modern family” to be one of the strongest elements of the film, as every teen depicted deals with neglect, abandonment, and trust issues at some level, and must navigate the tension of being between two divided parents.

“The Way, Way Back” is rated PG-13 and contains some bad language, sexual jokes and innuendos, underage drinking references, drug use, and a lot of bikini-clad girls. That sounds like a long list, but by today’s movie standards, I was surprised at how “clean” it was. However, I would not suggest this film for anyone who has more conservative film tastes or preferences. Nonetheless, the themes of identity, belonging, family, and friendship still make this a moving tale, and there is an endearing sense of innocence surrounding Duncan that makes his plight all the more sympathetic. In the midst of blow-’em-up blockbuster wannabes, “The Way, Way Back” speaks with candid humor of the deep importance of friendship and the powerful impact of seemingly small and everyday kindness.

For Further Reading:

Barbara Nicolosi, "Way, Way Good," Church of the Masses, Patheos, July 16, 2013.

Jeffrey Overstreet, "The Way, Way Back (2013)," Looking Closer, Patheos, July 12, 2013.

Image copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Annie Provencher is a writer in Northern Virginia.

[Editor's note: This is Annie's last Through the Window column. After this she'll be moving over to the features page. Be sure to look for her there! GRD]

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