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Cinema in Focus: ‘The Way Way Back’

2 Stars — Shallow

Coming-of-age stories take us back to the awkwardness of youth and remind us of how painful being a 14-year-old can be. Often, we are embarrassed by our “uncool” parents or our obnoxious siblings. Whether our perceptions are accurate or not, we are not alone, and the roles that our parents play in guiding us through this transition from childhood to adulthood is critical to our happiness and how we view the world when we reach our 20s and beyond.

The Way Way Back is a glimpse into the summer experience of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who must endure a summer at the beach with his mother and her new boyfriend, as well as his sister. Like many, if not most, early teenage boys, Duncan knows little about his feelings and lacks self-confidence. What he does know is that he is not happy with his mother’s choice of a boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), who is a self-absorbed and boorish substitute for his real father with whom he would rather be spending the summer.

While Duncan’s sister and her friends are lusting after the older hunks who troll the beaches looking for “groupie” girlfriends to bolster their egos, Duncan is stuck in that awkward stage of adolescence where he is more little boy than he is a man.

He is an embarrassment to his sister, and a wimp of a kid to the chest-pounding boyfriend of his mother. Superficial adult role models, including his mother’s best friends, all of whom are shallow and borderline alcoholics, surround Duncan. Duncan’s mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is fearful of being alone and settles for a jerk of a boyfriend to ease her pain. Unfortunately, she is more concerned about her own well-being than she is of the impacts of her choices on her son.

Along the way, Duncan begins to find himself through the friendship of some employees at one of the beach water-ride attractions. Owen (Sam Rockwell) is one of the managers of a water park, and he takes an interest in Duncan and begins to build his self-confidence, albeit through adolescent pranks. While Owen may be a positive influence in building Duncan’s self-esteem, he himself is a teenager trapped in an adult body. Like most of his friends, Owen has never had to grow up.

The Way Way Back may resonate with people who have grown up in dysfunctional families, but for anyone looking for a good role model for overcoming poor parenting, this is not the film for you.

Duncan is a good kid surrounded by a sea of mediocrity. All of these adults are experimenting with maturity without anyone having taught them how to build good choices into their lives. Their spiritual and emotional foundations are full of termites.

Coming-of-age stories don’t have to be Pollyanna or Father Knows Best, but they function best when they honestly give the viewer a sense of hope that good role models exist in the midst of bad ones. Without this kind of hope, most young men and women are left with little guidance to see a future family or spouse as a stable source of love and security in their lives.

In young Duncan’s case, he is spending the summer being taught how to build his life on a foundation of quicksand.


» When you were 14, how did you navigate your new physical and social experiences?

» The disrespect shown to Duncan by Trent is damaging. How would you have intervened if you had been Duncan’s mother? If you were his father?

» The adolescent sexual pranks taught to Duncan could be seen as dishonoring to women. Do you think a film like this is damaging to the attitude toward women by young teenagers?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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