The Way, Way Back: An Appreciation
Some months ago I saw The Way, Way Back (2013) and was taken by it enough to buy the DVD. It is a small film, yet ambitious, serious in its insights, and uncommon in its understanding of and sympathy for young people, its gentle portrayal of a small utopia affecting, as is its genuine love of humanity. I don’t mind stretching things to say that the film is associated in my mind with A Day in the Country (1936), for its sense of fleeting joy and human grace (the Water Wizz park crasser, of course, than Renoir’s world), and the frustrated yearning to recover same. The film received the usual cursory reviews (although Christopher Orr gave a thoughtful comment in The Atlantic, and a couple of reviewers actually felt it to be the best film of 2013). The term “dramedy” always comes up – I have to conclude that few if any people know that comedy very often finds a place in drama. Current dramedies are films without conviction, neither fish nor fowl. The Way,Way Back is a family melodrama, a study of family life whose occasional comedy has a bittersweet aspect that underscores its main problem, the comedy occasionally a relief, but mainly a reminder that humor is rarely a consolation.
Some have said the film is “formulaic.” I too, in my lazier moments, use this term to describe a film to friends. The point, of course, is that all art contains formula, certainly genre art. The issue is to ask what a work does with formula, how it regards the formula’s assumptions. Reviewers have also called this a “coming-of-age” film, even a bildungsroman; the latter term is especially inappropriate, since the form, in its standard manifestation at least, shows a young man (it is almost always a male because of this genre’s basic ambition) awakening to experience, but in such a way that he imbibes the standing ideology.
Young Duncan (Liam James) does nothing like that. He is in a tortured quandary, the film’s ending implying only a very tentative moment of liberation, with Duncan still entirely dependent on the adult world that torments him.
The film asks a key question uncommon to films about adolescents in crisis. They are too often “troubled children” with “issues” to be treated (medicated) by modern psychiatry. The blame might be placed on institutions such as our failed educational system, or a specific unloving family. For the most part, when a film looks at the child and the domestic scene, the tendency is toward recuperation, even if the family is tattered (The Ice Storm, 1995), or making the child outright crazy, lost in his/her fantasy world (Donnie Darko, 2001) which dilutes all political/social context. The best of the teenpics, Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece (one of several) Rebel Without a Cause (1955), shows tremendous empathy for young people, but places the blame for adolescent misbehavior on the postwar emasculated male and the overbearing female parent.
Duncan’s withdrawal, his depression, isn’t about his “awkward age glory,” as remarked by the repugnant Betty (Allison Janey), but rather his confrontation with the awfulness of the bourgeois adult world itself, with its various neuroses, imposed on the young, making life for the new generation as imprisoned and vengeful as its own. Duncan, along with his wonderful older girlfriend (the age difference is important, since the male is usually older – and therefore wiser) Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), are the only healthy people (with Peter [River Alexander] and the children at the park) in the narrative, even accounting for Owen (Sam Rockwell), virtually a messianic figure, complemented by his pals at the Water Wizz amusement park, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Roddy (Nat Faxon), and Lewis (Jim Rash).
The establishing sequence of The Way, Way Back contains one of the most disturbing scenes in recent cinema, one that actually happened to co-creator Jim Rash (more about him and his partner and fellow actor in the production, Nat Faxon, in a moment). Robin Wood once called Dazed and Confused (1993) a horror film, probably because the basic vulgarity of American youth culture as rendered by Hollywood was something wholly indigestible to a Briton who attended Cambridge, despite his own awful childhood. I never saw Dazed and Confused as a horror film, perhaps because it is not of my generation, but mainly because it doesn’t correspond to my experience of the terrible oppression and repression imposed on children, and the horrors I personally endured as a child, plus Linklater’s film is far too jokey to convey, to me at least, any sense of the evils imposed on young people (I may be an oddity, since I have to say that The Catcher in the Rye, a novel almost universally admired, struck me as hollow, its idiom not corresponding to my sense of the American youth voice, but Salinger’s generation and its expression may be at issue for me rather than my own simple orneriness). The opening scene of The Way,Way Back contains, to my mind, genuine horror, because it seems so basic, plausible, and rendered in an uncompromised, straightforward manner. I have not experienced anything quite like it in my own life (although some moments come very close), but I empathize completely with Duncan.
The screen is black after we see some foliage flashing by, suggesting that we are seeing the world from a speeding vehicle. We hear a man’s voice calling “Duncan!” There is a slight menace to the voice, although at this stage affable enough. We see merely a man’s eyes reflected in a car’s rear-view mirror. The reflection is not so much a surface simulacrum as a mask that reveals truth. I must pause to say that Steve Carell’s performance as Trent, boyfriend of Duncan’s’s mother Pam (Toni Collette), anticipates, I think, a turn in his career, fulfilled, for the moment, by his role as the deranged John du Pont in the recent masterpiece Foxcatcher (2014). He is a magnificent villain, notably so as his insistent voice finally rouses Duncan.
We see the interior of a “classic” 1970s station wagon. A young boy is seated in the fourth and last seat of the car – it faces backward, for use if the car is overcrowded. But it contains only four people, Trent and his girlfriend Pam in the front seat, Trent’s obnoxious daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) asleep in the seat behind them, and Duncan in this last seat – the film’s title is taken from the common way this odd seat was jokingly described in its time. Clearly Duncan didn’t have to sit there; he is there out of choice or punishment. His placement in the car has him, metaphorically, not anticipating the future (which he no doubt dreads) but dwelling on what pleasant memories he might have of the past. He is there no doubt to avoid both his sleeping mother Pam (for whom he has affection when not in Trent’s company) and especially her boyfriend Trent, whose voice interrupted Duncan’s sleep, rupturing the blessed blackness that we momentarily shared with him.
We do not fully see Trent in this sequence – only the back of his head and the mirror reflection, suggesting not that he is opaque but rather that his true self is kept hidden, a point made clear later. His voice conveys affected friendliness, laced with an authoritarian impulse (“Are ya up for that, buddy?”). He asks Duncan how he would rate himself “on a scale of one to ten,” the question of course conveying capitalist society’s idea of competition, with everything rated according to some dubious system of (use?) value. But what sense does Trent’s question make? A rating according to what? The best sportsman? Student? Obviously none of this is relevant, since Trent’s question is pure sadism designed to humiliate the boy. The sleeping women assure Trent that his actions won’t be witnessed. The pain and depression on Duncan’s face intensifies, a boy already seriously withdrawn. After insistent prodding, Duncan hesitantly answers: “a six?” Trent’s response: “I think you’re about a three!” He then chides the boy for spending the day hanging around his mother’s single-bedroom home (therefore suggesting that Duncan is a “sissy,” the idea intensified by the girls who hang out at Trent’s retreat and the beach). In retrospect, Trent’s chiding of Duncan for staying too close to his mother is Trent’s way of getting the boy out of the way, so he can have sex with the mother where and when he chooses. Most important, Trent’s behavior can easily be read as “normal,” the “way things are,” with Trent asserting his masculine authority over women and children. In fact, viewing him as some mean aberration misses the film’s essential point about oppression creating the stultifying world that deforms young people like Duncan.
The establishing sequence accomplishes much: this vacation excursion is about the entrapment and torment of a young boy by the older male, who needs desperately to assume the patriarchal role. That Pam is asleep is significant; in the first reel of the film she keeps on blinders, ignoring the awfulness that is Trent, trying to make a go of it, because, as she tells Duncan in one of the final scenes after Trent has been exposed for what he is, as Duncan wants mightily for his mother to part company with him: “We do things to protect ourselves…because we’re scared.” It isn’t often that the US cinema these days offers this kind of honesty. The “we” Pam refers to is obviously women, forced to live under contemporary circumstances. Pam needs to stay with Trent, even after she learns of his infidelity and general mendacity, because she, like many women on their own during the era of a War on Women, needs the male for emotional and financial security, even though Trent hardly provides either, and constitute most of the problems of which she is scared.
Betty and Adult Society
The arrival at Trent’s beachside house the Riptide is something like a descent into the inferno, remarkably photographed in brown and grey tones by John Bailey. The station wagon is greeted by neighbor Betty Ramsey (Allison Janey), an alcoholic who laughs her addiction off. She is the kind of person, to use the phrase, who sucks all the air out of a room, demanding to be center stage and “on” at all times, making adolescent sex jokes that mask her frustrations, deriding her gay husband who came out (“not a shock…his favorite view was the back of my head,” meaning to her that the desire for anal sex equals homosexuality) using alcohol not to self-medicate her mania as much as provide a mask to cover her inauthentic personality. Betty makes fun of Duncan’s name as “nerdy,” then pretends to apologize, claiming that she almost gave the name to her young son Peter, whom she treats with contempt, making fun of his askew right eye. Duncan sinks further into withdrawal to save his sanity, his very precarious sense of self; his mother suggests he go to the beach with Steph, a mirror of her father’s narcissism.
An important point of reference, for me at least, in understanding the film is Arthur Penn’s masterpiece The Chase (1965), depicting middle-class adults so intent on “partying,” that the entire community is almost destroyed. Unlike The Way, Way Back, there is no hope for the society of that film from the young, whose self-indulgence and savagery equal that of their parents. The hope comes only from the triad of Jake, Bubber, and Anna (the superb James Fox, Robert Redford, and Jane Fonda, energetic in their early careers), but this trio, so threatening to social mores, is destroyed (the trio is beyond jealousy or bickering – Bubber is Anna’s husband, but Anna makes love to Jake, an old friend to both). The trio lives outside of the bourgeois “cheaters” simply because they accept each other and are beyond jealousy, refusing to engage in the lies and fakery – to each other anyway – required of the institution of marriage and the rules of patriarchal society. Their society cannot tolerate them; it follows, according to the trajectory of the drama, that the trio is annihilated along with so much else, Jake and Bubber killed in the final apocalypse.
I don’t want to make a one-on-one comparison here, but just as the trio of The Chase represents the life force against the “cheating” middle class, the kids and child-like (as opposed to childish) adults of the Water Wizz water park represent life and health, emotionally and sexually, against the mendacious, pot-smoking adults of the Riptide. Both The Chase and The Way, Way Back offer images of a conflicted society; in each film we see life and joy oppressed by the mainstream, threatened with extinction by the “normal” world. And a spirit of malice encompasses the partying adults of both films, more pronounced in Penn.
A word about drugs. The film is not, I think, associating pot with amorality, although, to be sure, the youth culture of the 1960s that saw pot as a path to enlightenment is long gone. The film views pot and alcohol as the province of adults who need to drug themselves. Certainly Trent and his friends have no interest in opening the doors of perception. Beer is in evidence at Water Wizz, but its role is negligible; the key “drug” is human contact. The film endorses “promiscuity” as Robin Wood defined it: it is the act of relating freely, and to everyone in sight, with each person accepting the other as a peer and someone to be loved.
Duncan’s discovery of Water Wizz is a revelatory moment; he spots its huge garishness as he rides a girl’s bike (suggesting his indifference to bending gender rules). The revelation is immediately preceded by his meeting Susanna, Betty’s daughter (how could that woman produce such a grace note?), who in the course of the film introduces Duncan to heterosexual relationships simply by having honest conversation with him. Susanna is told to go to the beach with “the other girls,” who show off their bodies, calling Duncan a “perv” for looking at their display. They deride Duncan and his mother for living in Albany, NY, apparently a signifier of a low social station. Susanna lies apart from them, reading a book. She spots Duncan on the back porch of the Riptides one evening and tries to engage him; Duncan aches to speak to her, but can just barely pull himself out of his emotional paralysis.
He agrees with her that the Riptide and environs “sucks,” but can find only the weather as a subject of (very brief) conversation. Susanna, older than Duncan, is distinguished by her emotional maturity. She, like Duncan, is looking for a way out. But Susanna is self-possessed enough to endure, even if she must stay put. She helps Duncan along, as an enabler in the most positive sense. How he helps her is in question. Susanna may have found a kindred spirit in Duncan. She eventually follows him to the Water Wizz where he has discovered a new life with Owen. A very tentative romance blossoms, but the focus is on Duncan’s socialization and the nurturing that Susanna provides as somewhat of a mother figure, one of the film’s weaknesses.
The arrival at the park is preceded by the introduction of the hero, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who smiles at a depressed Duncan from his sports car, then is spotted by Duncan at a café in town, playing the retro video game Pac Man. Duncan observes him; Owen observes Duncan and draws him into the game. Duncan misses Owen’s wisecracks, not because he is unintelligent, but because he has become so wary of all interchange he is defensive and paralyzed. It is useful to compare Owen to Betty, both of whom might be seen as yammering scene-stealers demanding attention. But Betty is all cruel neurosis, finally pitiable because she is unfunny, trying so hard to pretend she is in control of her life – but yet is she pitiable, her nastiness and lack of self-awareness overwhelming and erasing our sympathy for her illnesses?
Owen is Betty’s opposite. His jokes are about entertainment – his own and others, and he is successful. He doesn’t insult anyone, which is essentially the point of Betty’s humor. Owen’s little digs at Duncan are about engaging the boy, and conveying that Owen knows Duncan to be a person of intelligence. He becomes a mentor to Duncan, hiring him to work at the Water Wizz, introducing him to its hijinks. It’s another stretch (a small one) to think of Owen as one of the cinema’s interloping outsiders, like those of Shane, Picnic, The Fugitive Kind, the James Dean films, Teorema, and Hors Satan, whose very presence is a disruption to the established order of things. Owen is not as mythical as his forbears in cinema, but his function is similar, although the transformation of a society in such a state of decay is beyond his power. His successes are at the micro level, but with the implication that Duncan’s emotional nurturing is linked to larger possibilities, figured in the bliss of the water park itself. When Pam learns of her son’s new friend, she is taken aback, less because he is a grown man (is he a pedophile?) than because he is an unknown factor that has entered her miserable, fragile existence that she nevertheless tries to keep on an even keel.
The Water Wizz and Amusement Parks
The very name of the park (which actually exists on the coast of Massachusetts), where Owen is the ostensible manager (he takes nothing too seriously – the word “ludic,” so bandied-about during the postmodernism craze, is made for him; he is the Dionysius of the suburbs), is fun, a dirty joke that is adolescent in a way opposite to Betty’s cracks about sex. The term “wizz” might imply urination, here suggesting the total fun of urinating in the bathtub, a joy that turns taboo at a specific point in human development, where one must become “responsible.” The term also suggests wizardry, which Owen might be said to perform. The term and the park are adolescent because liminal, in between childhood and adulthood while refusing to dispense with play, with sexuality in the open (not actually portrayed but represented in the vital human body) and incorporated into all lived experience – the park is embodied joy, best expressed when the camera follows young people diving down the water-filled chutes to splash in the large pool beneath.
Owen walks with Duncan to Owen’s pal Roddy (Nat Faxon, the film’s co-creator), who supervises the gigantic Devil’s Peak water slide. Owen asks Roddy to give “my man” (referring to Duncan) the treat of a “special” ride. A young woman in a bikini (that most the people at the water park are scantily clad is only sensible, yet this image of freedom enhances the idea of the park as utopia) wants to slide down the chute, but Roddy asks her to wait, a common practice allowing people preceding each person time to complete their plunge. But Roddy prolongs the moment, the camera lingering on the girl’s derriere – their POV is ours. But there is no exploitation here, the woman knowing full well the silliness going on. The young woman, Owen, and Duncan plunge down the chute together to form an enormous splash in the landing pad of water. Owen feigns an injured foot and grabs onto the young woman, jokingly begging her for support – she laughs “Oh, Owen!,” and shoves him away, a smile on her face.
Owen employs Duncan, pretending that the boy will be subjected to menial labor, but in a quick montage we see Duncan in a near-managerial role, even assuming Roddy’s position as overseer of Devil’s Peak. Owen and Duncan assume the archetypal older man/younger acolyte construct of the cinema, but there is nothing here about passing on patriarchal wisdom (the old and young gunfighters of countless westerns) to the next player in the Oedipal trajectory. Owen increases the boy’s self-worth without inflating himself; he keeps his comedy in place to undercut himself as font of wisdom. Yet it is to the film’s credit that we see Owen in a serious mode, photographed in such a way that he is momentarily the handsome hero, not the constant buffoon.
The most celebratory moment is Owen’s assignment to Duncan to tell a group of breakdancers to remove their cardboard – essentially their little stage – from a temporarily empty pool. Duncan is nervous. Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Owen’s employee who performs the role of boss, has trepidations. Owen goes into a humorous boxing pose, promising to protect Duncan from “disfigurement” (suggesting by the comedic gesture that violence is out of the question in the world of the park). Duncan tentatively interrupts the group, turning off their radio. The moment necessarily recalls Ford, with a group of people performing a ritual signifying the unity of society. But Ford’s community scenes are usually filled with angst, an encroaching melancholy suggesting that joy, of whatever sort, inevitably is confronted by pain, the typical Fordian outlook.
The breakdancing get-together is unalloyed joy. The nervous Duncan confronts the group, which allows him to take the cardboard – but only after he shows them his “moves.” Too awkward and self-conscious to do very much, he is given some tips from a young black woman. The moment is crucial, because it draws attention to the park’s integration; the races mingle together without incident, without question. Duncan is spun around by the surrounding crowd, but with a feeling of embrace and fun. Eventually Duncan “sticks” a move and poses for the crowd – he is now flowering as a human being.
The Water Wizz is utopia, with the important meaning of the word. Utopia is a delusion, yet one worth working toward. The Marxist derision of utopianism is based on unscientific, wrong-headed political strategies and the refusal of existence as constant struggle. But isn’t the creation of “a more perfect union,” perhaps a naïve and duplicitous American idea, the purpose of politics itself? The small, urban, rural, or suburban amusement park was once a refuge from the industrialist capitalist world, at times even a parody of it (the Expressionist design of Fun Houses and other entertainments). Small, often shabby amusement parks, as I knew them, are not to be confused with Disney World, Six Flags, Universal, and other gargantuan corporate nightmares, that killed off the amusement park, symbolizing rather than parodying the environmental devastation of the deindustrialized urban and suburban worlds.
The Water Wizz is a fragile thing, and a thing of the past, as Owen tells Duncan in his humorous history of the park. In a voice doing a faux-imitation of a latter-day robber baron who created the place, Owen says that the grumpy founder refused to have it updated – if he knew that it were, he would sooner have it destroyed, at least in Owen’s narration. Owen’s entire story – culminating in a riff on the Cold War as he is reminded to get back to work by Caitlin – is a total fiction, but it gives a sense of Owen’s politics in the broadest sense. Owen’s humor aside, it is clear that the park’s existence is temporary, a thin existence for those who work it (we see Owen paying his staff, which soon includes Duncan), but money is a marginal presence: there is a sense that people would survive simply through mutual support.
The film’s criticism of Owen comes via his girlfriend and de facto actual park manager Caitlin. She is portrayed as the responsible person looking out for the financial well-being of the place, while Owen is the perpetual clown. There is a difficulty in all this. Caitlin becomes the practical person, even a kind of stereotypical nag, while Owen is the ethereal figure, almost a poet in the gifts he brings to the kids of the park. But the film takes Caitlin seriously in a moment when she dresses down Owen for a dangerous stunt with several boys that fixes the water chute but could have placed the park itself in legal jeopardy. It is perhaps a too-predictable moment: the clown rendered as pathetic, even wretched. What overturns the moment is the Owen-Caitlin relationship itself. Maya Rudolph is not the traditional Hollywood beauty, but she is offered to us as rebuke of such examples. Owen tells Duncan that Caitlin is “the one you wait for,” making Duncan, at that moment, understands a basic fact about the nature of beauty, the objectification of women, and the delusion of at least some modes of heterosexual romantic love.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
The films co-creators, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, are authentic auteurs, at least in this project. They co-wrote and co-directed the film. It is a personal project; the film’s alarming opening scene actually happened to Jim Rash. The two men are a study in contrasts, Faxon a tall, strapping blonde, Rash a diminutive, skinny, mostly bald man who plays Lewis, a cranky hypochondriac tending one of the park’s little shops (which he claims no one ever visits) and always threatens to resign – one of his farewell parties turns into a free-for-all with water pistols, with Lewis the main target during his soppy pseudo-farewell speech, yet no one is actually derided; everyone, including the cranky Lewis, joins a spontaneous dance.
Faxon and Rash, from the evidence of the film and its supplemental materials, seem to be in such extraordinary sync that I assumed they were a couple (Faxon seems to be straight, Rash gay). The point is relevant only when we note that the notion of “couple” is itself peculiar. The two men have a professional rather than sexual/emotional relationship, but what does this mean? Do the two men gain no emotional – even a tad of sexual – sustenance from each other? In an era when the protection of women in the workplace has turned into a means of policing workers’ romantic lives at the smallest level of detail (the easier to fire people), the idea of the workplace including emotional connection, indeed the ability to “relate freely,” seems something of a vaguely-remembered past, if it existed at all. The Faxon/Rash film is about nothing less than the assertion of the need for free, unencumbered relationships, with Duncan’s story one that could have gone in a different direction (there is a suggestion that it still might), fitting the norm of human behavior in the oppressive climate of home, family, and nation.
Trent is exposed at one of Betty’s drunken backyard barbeques, when he inadvertently reveals his affair with Joan, something Pam has sensed. Her rage has been simmering at least since the pseudo-family was trapped in the Riptide during a rainstorm. Trent wanted to go to the movies while Pam wanted them all to stay in, in a strained ritual of togetherness. They play the children’s board game Candyland. Trent is a martinet about sticking to the “rules” of the game; Pam explodes, then runs away in tears, realizing that Trent assumes the role of master when he fails to get his way. The barbeque scene brings the end of the affair – perhaps. Duncan yells at his mother, begging her to take a stand against Trent. At one point Duncan pushes Trent; there is a frightening instant when Trent starts to lunge at Duncan, but is stopped by his pal, the ne’er-do-well Kip (Rob Corddry). There is the sense that Trent wants to kill Duncan, logical since Trent is being edged out of the Oedipal circuit by the boy he felt he could easily subdue, psychologically and physically. Duncan begs his sobbing mother to allow him to go to his father. Trent has an opening: “Good luck with that! He doesn’t want you, kid!” At this point the patriarchal nuclear family explodes, with the mother on the verge of collapse, Duncan devastated. He is now aware that he has no place to go, all avenues within the family structure impossible. Trent has been revealed, and even this degenerate lot can’t deal with him, mainly because he has revealed the pervasive mendacity, basic to the whole group’s modus operandi. Later, Duncan hears Trent trying to win Pam’s sympathies by promising to “be better.” It is clear that Trent is driven by a typical male pathology: the need to manipulate the female, degrade her, perhaps even destroy her, but in the meantime occasionally assume an infantile posture that begs for mom’s forgiveness.
As Duncan listens to the wretched exchange, he is spotted by Peter, who is hiding under the house. He begs Duncan to “take [me] with you!” At this moment, the children become most aware of the awfulness of the family – all of the families around the Riptide, and we could say that the film is now making (and has been making throughout) a universal statement. The family itself is condemned.
Trent wants to move on, and Pam has told Duncan her fears of being alone, so Duncan must leave with them, meaning a farewell to the Water Wizz and the promise of a constructed (predominantly male) family of his own. As Duncan climbs into the way, way back seat of Trent’s station wagon, he is kissed by Susanna, surprising him since she earlier pulled away when he tried to embrace her, deflating the boy. But Susanna says she was simply taken aback by the moment, suggesting not just her surprise at the now-forthright Duncan, but another part of her wisdom – the concern for not being taken advantage of, and not wanting to be part of the sexual/emotional ambit of her mother Betty.
When Trent stops the car for gas, Duncan jumps out for a farewell to the Water Wizz family. After some final shenanigans with Owen, Duncan embraces him in an especially touching moment, and one of the film’s authentic expressions of love. The love between men is a palpable text of the film, since Duncan’s love for Owen – and Roddy and Owen’s love for Lewis, or Owen’s love for Caitlin – is on a par with the love among the kids and adults throughout the park, an environment of “relating freely.” Owen has been a non-judgmental father to Duncan, giving him tasks at the park that teach him not so much that work can be transformed into fun but that work itself can be annihilated, and always a question of equals working together rather than for anyone. Owen’s assistance has been about far more than teaching self-confidence. Duncan came to him emotionally dead, unable to smile, believing that what life had in store for him (assuming he could escape his mother and Trent) would be at best a replication of the Trent/Pam relationship. His hatred of that situation makes clear the film’s condemnation of the “ordinary” family, equating it with emotional stultification and misery.
Owen comes to the physical rescue as Trent appears, approaching Duncan with blood in his eye. Owen inserts himself between Trent and the boy, saying to Trent “You must be ‘the three,’” referring to Trent’s torment of Duncan (tearfully related to Owen) in the film’s first scene. This Shane vs. Wilson moment may seem hackneyed (indeed the entire film may seem hackneyed if one half-sees it, and brushes it off as a prototypical teenpic), refusing to notice its sensitive comments on a boy’s existence, and the scathing picture of the family and the entrapment of the female by traditional gender relations and the need for money –portrayed in this film is something over which the male has essential control.
In the final moment, the tortured family is on the road in the station wagon, and in their traditional seats (it is always fascinating to me how the male is the one who drives, almost without variation in commercial cinema – and in life). Duncan, in the way, way backseat, is glum. Pam looks tormented, Trent an image of seething rage, his pose shattered, his ability to manipulate over. Suddenly, Pam climbs over the seat to join her son in the way, way back. There are small smiles on their faces. Does this mean that Pam is through with Trent? Pam’s momentary break with Trent seems tentative – will a woman so frightened actually walk away from this man? We are spared a scene of Pam having it out with Trent, complete with shouts and recriminations. Such a scene is unnecessary and beside the point. The film describes a situation, with the knowledge that changing it requires a massive amount of societal courage.
At one level I hesitate to praise the use of rock songs in film because they are most often pure manipulation of the spectator, even more so than traditional scores since they involve lyrics telling us precisely how we should feel. Or they are simply thrown in at random, at times overlooking entirely the song’s meaning, ignoring its radical roots – for me the representative moment is in the dreadful Steven Segal thriller Under Siege. We see a massive battleship, its cannons firing to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).” But the Reagan era brought a devastating attack on the best rock, nullifying its political content – Top Gun is representative, but it got much worse, including the use of The Beatles’ “Revolution” for a jogging shoe ad.
The music for The Way,Way Back is mostly pop rather than rock, but it is graceful, unobtrusive, yet very expressive of the joy and misery felt by Duncan. The songs annotate the film, especially with a second viewing. They stay clear of constituting the wall-to-wall sound of the current Hollywood feature. The film is framed by two intelligent Edie Brickell songs, the first, “For the Time Being,” shows the depressed Duncan trying to endure. The second song, at the finale, “Go Where the Love Is” represents the lesson learned by the boy, and his knowledge that one constructs one’s own relationships. Some songs are used diegetically, like “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister. As it plays on the radio, Trent’s secret girlfriend Joan dancing about, her ostensible partner, the lame-brained Kip, laughs at the song, asking her with a very snide tone, why the singer sings “carry a laser,” to which Joan responds that he “likes space.” The point here is not that the pair is stupid or lacking in religious education, preventing them from recognizing the basic Christian petition. Rather, they and all around them are graceless. The song “Recess,” by Eli “Paperboy” Reid, is an unabashed celebration of that treasured moment of schoolday celebration – the instant of play that breaks the rote education of grammar school, mostly a dreadful failure in the US. Most important is the song’s recognition that school is about preparation for a “job,” not the flowering of a person through knowledge.
I couldn’t help but note that the poster for this film and the cover of its DVD says “From the Studio that Brought You Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.” Every word of this can be contested. Certainly studios of the old Hollywood brandished their logos, but corporate audacity today is appalling. Are we to view a corporate entity as a creative force, and one that is part of News Corporation, headed by the hyper-reactionary Rupert Murdoch? The company allowed the film to happen, it is true, but I see the achievement of The Way, Way Back occurring despite, not because of the studio. It is a film that Fox let go, thinking it a good product for the season, perhaps without looking at it very hard, as sometimes happens (the opposite happens too – the fate of Heaven’s Gate will remain the locus classicus, many of the corporate bosses who killed it off never having seen the radical masterpiece). And how did Fox “bring” us this film? The word “brought” suggests a servant bringing a letter on a silver tray. Films are “brought” to us only with a stiff fee from the viewer.
Little Miss Sunshine is not without interest, mainly for its performances, including those of Toni Collette and Steve Carell, and also Alan Arkin, but it is the archetypal “dramedy,” about a troubled family whose troubles are finally mere jokes that are easily resolved, if in a totally implausible manner where the film finds its jokes. Its use of a kiddie beauty pageant for a coming-together moment is appalling, but instructive in its understanding of the actual embrace of pedophilia by the general public. About Juno one can say not much; it is simply atrocious, particularly with the performance of the eternally mean-faced, unpleasant actor Ellen Page. This is a thoroughly “pro-life” film masked as a story of a young woman setting off on her own, establishing her own identity. As always, the right uses the tropes of the left. It is a shame that a refreshing film like The Way,Way Back must be misrepresented by being placed in the context of such rubbish.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International, and for Cineaste.