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THE WAY WAY BACK is a well-executed coming-of-age film, written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the same guys that did THE DESCENDENTS. You’ll enjoy it. It has a similar feel to that film, particularly in some of its observations on contemporary society, but a more engaging (and far less saddening) plot. As in MUD and SUPER 8, what draws us in particularly is the plight of an adolescent boy, Duncan, although he has none of the confidence the lead characters of those films had, and the story is in part about him learning to have some.

The setting is also interesting: the extended get-away at an East-Coast beach house strip, with the kids dragged along, but left to amuse themselves as the adults drink, joke, gossip, flirt, and drink some more. As Duncan’s love-interest and fellow teen says: “It sucks here . . . it’s like Spring Break for adults.”

And again, extremely well-executed. Rash and Faxon do not tell, they show. For example, the weepy “I now realize” speeches and scenes normally indulged in towards the end of films of this sort never occur. Rash and Faxon are also able to immerse us in utterly unpleasant scenes of “family” discord without our feeling manipulated or drawn over the coals. Humor is deftly interspersed throughout. And even when Duncan is at his most obtuse stage of withdrawal, we are drawn to care about what happens to him.

way way back poster image

Unlike most of the other films I’ve written about here, say, MUD, TRUE GRIT, or ALMOST FAMOUS , I don’t think this is a film with many hinted-at depths and messages, but there are a couple themes worth discussing.

Let’s begin with the most obvious one:  adults behaving as children.

We get two sorts of adults who act like children in the film. There is the main set, Duncan’s mom, her boyfriend Trent, and three other adults who seem the center of a slightly larger annual summer community of vacationers.  One of Trent’s friends is a slightly younger, 30s-ish, gal who has apparently has had a thing with Trent before.

Now you know how it is, I hope, when you finally arrive at the vacation destination with a group of friends or relatives—the time has come to play . A wonderful moment, happy reunions, running banter, and if it’s mostly adults, drinks are likely poured: in any case, the unpacking can wait. That’s what happens with these adults, but the drinking gets heavy quick, and they shunt the kids and teenagers they’ve brought off to the beach. The impromptu party rolls into dinner, the late late night, picking up the next day around lunch . . . and so it mostly goes day in and day out, not wild like a frat kegger, as it is interspersed with boating trips and a neighborhood clam-bakes, and with different folks of different ages drifting in and out; but it’s nonetheless a rolling party, extended out over a summer.  Little effort has been made to organize cross-generational activities, and there isn’t the pull of child-care to regulate things, since most of the kids are teens.

And so it’s horrible for the teens. Especially the awkward ones. With everyone present, the drunken neighbor lady comments on your appearance, and jokes about her husband’s bedroom practices in front of you. You’re maybe fourteen. Your mom’s boyfriend’s bald friend comes over, starts pantomiming air-guitar on his beer can to the loud music, while his younger female friend (relationship undefined) starts dancing around wildly and trying to drag you into it, half-flirtatiously and half-mockingly. Your mom’s boyfriend’s bitchy teenage daughter (he’s divorced, so is your mom) is ordered to take you with her to the beach, but she despises you and makes you sit ten feet away from her and her hot friends. You get up in the morning, and everyone’s sleeping till noon, and your mom has left you a note on the counter with twenty dollars. No-one cares if you have anything to do. Worse, you’re getting an up-close view of adults at their lamest, when they’re trying to act cool. Very funny for the audience, but no fun for you.

So the film is showing us how awful a “sibling society” can be, a society where the role of parenthood goes on vacation, indefinitely. What appears to be throw-away dialogue early on, when one of the sun-bathing bikini teens makes the blasé statement that “I’m totally going to do drugs with my kids,” turns out to be a line that defines the delusions of the whole scene here. And in fact, the adults do prove cool with one of the kids having scored some pot, but they certainly don’t smoke it with them, but rather squirrel away with some of it, acting like naughty teenagers. They might as well be just another clique of kids on this beach partying and fooling around with one another, albeit a more experienced clique. They make no effort to connect with the teenagers—we’d actually have more respect if one of them earnestly sought to impart words of wisdom to one of the kids over some shared ganja. But no, the teens’ job is to appear to be having fun, doing beach vacation activities, or even partying themselves, so long as they stay out of the way.

So the message there seems pretty clear, right? Parents trying to revert to teenage freedom are monsters.

But there is another sort of childish adult in the film, represented by Owen, the master of ceremonies at the Water Whizz water-slide park. And by befriending Duncan and giving him a job at the park, he proves the cure for his blues, the savior of the film.  Let’s see, does he make inappropriate sexual jokes in front of Duncan? Check. Does he appear to live in joker mode 24/7? Check. Does he let Duncan and his seventh-grade tag-along into an adult dancing and drinking party? Yep. Does he have a “Peter Pan” syndrome? Oh yes.

But the feel is entirely different. Owen’s job, the one he’s given himself over and above his official water-park manager duties, is to inject some spirit, some fun into the place. He has a bit of Caddyshack Bill Murray cool-guy weirdness thrown in the mix, but all day long he’s in a sly way playing with the attendees and employees of the water-park, pulling practical jokes, and often bending certain rules to do so.  He’s enlivening things.  His party, thrown for a departing employee, really can be fun for all ages(although the kids weren’t actually supposed to be there), with practical jokes, water pistols, and the adults giving themselves more to the spirit of celebration than to dissolution. It makes perfect sense at this party for the kids to join in the dancing.

It’s important, of course, that we also see that Owen is capable of getting past his syndrome, his addiction to ironic banter and play, and that this very summer he makes a key move against it.

So no, this film is not saying that adults must set up inviolable boundaries between child-stuff, teen-stuff, and adult-stuff. It is of course showing us that the divorce-prone and otherwise “undefined” relationship-world of contemporary adult society brings with it a whole lot of misery. The adults would do better by the kids, and themselves, to try to stay together, to accept the limitations of marriage and the parental role. But look, everyone needs to have fun, to play and build confidence, the kids most of all, and they frankly need the adults to show them how. Water-slides in and of themselves aren’t that exciting, you know? Not unless there’s someone there to make a spirited game of it.

The crummy adults just joke in front of the kids, often inappropriately and in a dominate-the-conversation way, whereas Owen shows Duncan by example how to joke. He brings him into it.

We’re ready now to consider why the film continually raises the issue of rules, and when to break them. Our need to do so is directly signaled, as one of the nightmarish “family” scenes is an ends-in-tears argument over the board game Candyland(it’s the only game in the house on a rainy day), the issue being whether to go by an impromptu resolution of a rule-dilemma that arises, or whether to go by the rule printed on the box. Consider these examples:

1) Should have broke the rule: Trent makes Duncan wear the life-vest on the boat. A miserable power-play that makes Duncan look uncool in front of the girls his age, which Trent justifies due to his being a weak swimmer and it making his mom nervous.

2) Should not have broke the rule: when three kids get stuck in the water-slide tube, Owen makes it a mock-drama by announcing this and getting a very big kid to be launched down the tube to break the log-jam. It works, the kids all love it, but the film makes us initially wonder whether someone might not get hurt, and indeed, in the immediate dialogue afterwards, we learn that such accidents have happened and have shut down water parks.

3) Should have broke the rule: Trent’s insistence on the Candyland rule.

4) Should not have broke the rule: the adults smoking pot, flirting with other’s partners, etc.

5) Should have broke the rule: the first time Duncan rides the ostentatiously girly-pink bicycle he finds in the garage(his only means of escaping the beach house), he leaves the frills on the handles; the second time, he tears them off.

And so on.

Owen announces when we first meet him that he doesn’t like rules or “patterns,” and initially seems to live without limits. But we begin to see that, while tempted towards a cynicism that makes everything a joke, he will accept correction, and has an innate a sense for roles, even ones not yet quite defined. He has a role, a self-invented one, at the park. And he’s Duncan’s friend and mentor for a season, which allows them to talk about some things, but not others. It’s a finely tuned role. He never prods Duncan about what is troubling him, and he never pretends that his friendship with Duncan would make it appropriate for him discuss his own troubles with him. A certain manly distance, appropriate for the particular situation, is kept. But the love is totally there.

The bad adults, at least for vacation-time, give up on roles entirely, and as especially seen with Trent, oscillate from insisting upon rules, often on minor issues, to living as if there are none. The love, even the minimal consideration, for the kids is totally not there.

So, film is showing us that rules have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, although it looks like the alternative to obeying the big rules about marriage is a very unlovely way of life. But more important are roles; these are more defined by the love and the neediness that bring them into being and sustain their function, than by the rules society gives us for ordering them.

Owen, the hero adult, is for roles not rules; Trent, the villain adult, is for rules not roles. (It is no accident that Duncan’s mom says she first met Trent when he was costumed as a policeman.) The story as a whole seems critical of those who think they need no rules for their roles, particularly with respect to marriage. And note that by the end of the film, Owen seems heading towards marriage with his lady-friend, while Trent is not.

There’s more to the rules/roles thing in general, of course, and perhaps in this film also. So, go see it, and don’t do drugs with your kids.

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