Fatherhood and “The Way Way Back”

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, Liam James, and Maya Rudolph in "The Way Way Back" (copyright 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc.)

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, Liam James, and Maya Rudolph in “The Way Way Back” (copyright 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc.)

“The Way Way Back” was a small coming-of-age movie from last summer that many of you may have missed; I just got around to it on video. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won Oscars for co-writing “The Descendants”), it tells the story of a summer at the beach for 14-year-old Duncan, an incredibly awkward young teen, along with his mother, her obnoxious new boyfriend Trent, and his teen daughter. Emotionally beaten down by his mother’s distractedness, Trent’s passive-aggressive put-downs, and everyone else’s complete ignoring of him, he seems to suffer every moment of the “vacation.” That is, until he meets Owen, the permanent-adolescent manager of a nearby water park who takes Duncan under his wing. As he secretly takes a job at the water park, Duncan slowly but surely starts to emerge from his shell, taking some small but not insignificant steps towards manhood.

The movie breaks no new ground—coming-of-age stories were pretty much a staple of 80’s filmmaking, and the common(ish) experiences of growing up are a pretty easy way to relate to the audience. But just because something has been done before does not mean it can’t be done again better. And I think “The Way Way Back” does that. The story is engaging, the performances (especially from Steve Carrell playing against type as the abrasive Trent and Sam Rockwell as water park manager Owen) are excellent, and, in the end, you really care about what happens to these characters. While some might find it a touch sentimental (and I guess I’m getting more sentimental as I get older, so what’s wrong with that?), I found it charming. I can’t recommend it enough.

Throughout the movie, though, that I did sense a bigger theme than just a kid overcoming his circumstances on the journey through adolescence. At the beginning, Trent establishes himself as a jerk when he asks Duncan to rate himself from 1 to 10 and then tells Duncan that he thinks Duncan is a 3. As Duncan is dragged along on “family” outings, Trent does his best to embarrass him; for example, at one point Trent makes him wear an unbelievably overlarge life jacked on a boating trip. Finally, Duncan confronts his mother about Trent’s loutishness (towards him and his mother) and says that he wants to leave and go live with his father, who has a new home in San Diego with a new girlfriend. Trent, in his final attempt to crush Duncan, tells him that his father doesn’t want him.

Here, we see two examples of “fatherhood” gone wrong. First, in Duncan’s own father, we see complete abandonment.  The man has decided to live life solely for his own purposes and pleasures instead of taking responsibility for his child. This is surely sin. In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul states that the church should treat one failing to provide for his family as one who has “denied the faith” and “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). By failing to provide for his son through his physical presence and his attention to his son’s mental, emotional, and behavioral needs, Duncan’s father has failed as a father, and Duncan clearly bears to wounds of that betrayal.

Second, in Trent, we see “fatherhood” as competition. Trent repeatedly makes reference to the group becoming a “family” someday, but shows no care or compassion towards Duncan. Instead, he uses irrational rules and cutting insults to show his superiority. Though he claims he wants to fill the role of father, his selfish pride does nothing but make Duncan’s life harder. This, too, is sin. “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21). Trent is no father, he’s a bully; his insecurity and selfishness, like Duncan’s own father’s rejection, only serves to further injure Duncan.

Instead of these two men, it is in Owen who does for those things that a father should do. He simply expresses interest in and concern for who Duncan is. He welcomes Duncan into his life, giving him a sense of belonging. He gives Duncan responsibility and challenges, hiring him and sending him to do difficult tasks. He even steps in as protector when necessary. And, due to the love shown by this “father figure,” Duncan is able to overcome the rejection and humiliation he suffers from the other men in his life and gains the confidence necessary to becoming a man. Through his regard for and care of Duncan, it is in Owen we see the reminders that children are both a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5) and a great responsibility (Deuteronomy 4:9-10; Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 6:4). May all of us who are fathers always remember that.

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About Rich Starnes

Husband, daddy, lawyer, preacher/worship leader/elder-in-training, Royals fan, film buff, slow reader, and worst sinner I know redeemed by a great Savior.
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