Making the Grades
It’s not unusual for teens to feel like they have the “worst parents ever”. But in the case of the kids in The Way Way Back, they might just be right. Once these adults arrive at their beachfront properties they begin behaving badly (though they likely do the same at home too). But while acting like college kids on spring break is one thing, admitting to it would require something none of these adults possess—maturity.
Instead these grown-ups engage in unmarried sex, excessive drinking and illegal drug use. Meanwhile their kids, who are more often than not treated like unwanted baggage from now-defunct marriages, are left to fend for themselves if they’re lucky or openly disparaged by the adults if they’re not.
So is the behavior of Trent (Steve Carell). When he and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) pull up at their cabin they have his new girlfriend Pam (Toni Collette) and her son Duncan (Liam James) in tow. By the time they are greeted by Trent’s blathering alcoholic neighbor Betty (Allison Janney), Trent has already taken the opportunity to humiliate Duncan, letting him know where the two of them stand. (Let’s just say Trent is not into parenting. He gladly turns a blind eye to his teenaged daughter’s drinking and hardly even acknowledges her existence.)
Duncan can’t think of a worse place to spend his summer.
Forced to fill his time while the adults party into the night and then sleep in all morning, the awkward teen wanders down to the water park where he eventually meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), another failed-to-launce adult who manages the complex. While Owen lacks any real managerial skills (he leaves it to his staff to run the park), he does have the ability to connect with the unhappy teen. And although Owen might not be a parent’s first pick for a role model, he does a better job of it than any of the other grown-ups in this movie. Befriended by Owen, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Roddy (Nat Faxon), Lewis (Jim Rash) and the other staff members, Duncan finally finds a place where he fits in.
The Way Way Back, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, walks a fine line between comedy and drama with its adult children and childish adults. But those aren’t the only disparities in this film. Steph and her girlfriends parade around the public beach in tiny bikinis but seem to think they can choose who looks at their near naked bodies. And Betty, who constantly belittles her son Peter (River Alexander), expects his respect.
I’m not sure if this film is supposed to justify teens’ feelings about terrible parents or give adults a wake-up call. Unfortunately this commentary on the sad state of parenting misfires for family viewers concerned about content. Along with frequent profanities (including some strong sexual expletives) and alcohol abuse, Betty’s running sexual dialogue leaves even her neighbors feeling uncomfortable. Considering how dysfunctional every adult is in this movie, it’s surprising their abandoned offspring function as well as they do. Luckily for Duncan, he finds the one place in the world where he can thrive—and that’s a hopeful turn of events in an otherwise miserable summer.
Theatrical Release Date: 3 July 2013 (Limited)
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Way Way Back.
What are the challenges of blending families? What responsibility do parents have to their children from a previous relationship? Why do the adults in this movie act so irresponsibly?
Why do so many employees at the water park seem to be caught in time warp where they are unable to move on to more adult responsibilities or relationships?
Why does Owen relate to Duncan? What may have happened in his past?