The Way Way Back follows 14-year-old Duncan on vacation with his recently divorced mother Pam, her new boyfriend Trent, and Trent’s daughter. Trouble is, Trent is a dick, and doesn’t measure up as a new father for Duncan. To escape from the overbearing Trent, Duncan starts hanging around the youthful Owen who gives Duncan a job at the local water park. Through Duncan’s search for a real father figure, The Way Way Back explores the crisis in modern fatherhood and gives us hope that a generational shift could put us back on track.
Rating Duncan’s existence on a scale of one to ten, Trent says “I think you’re a three”.
The Way Way Back, though set in present day, evokes a strange kind of nostalgia for the 1980s. The beach town and the people in it feel stuck in time, while cinematically it brings to mind the many great coming-of-age dramas from that period, and leaves the audience yearning for some ethereal quality which we seem to have lost. Likewise, Duncan yearns for an idea of “father” that he has lost, and which we are not sure he ever really knew.
As Duncan awakens to his quest for “father”, the film presents Duncan with three potential father figures.
Sam Rockwell, who plays Owen, was himself aged 14 in 1983 – a real-world fact that’s highly suggestive of the tie between the water park and Owen’s never ending adolescence
- Duncan’s biological father has divorced his mother and is living with a younger woman in California. This man is now completely absent from Duncan’s life and, as it turns out, wants nothing to do with him.
- Trent (Steve Carell) has intruded into Duncan’s life as his mother’s new boyfriend. Trent is wealthy and handsome but also controlling, judgemental and ultimately unfaithful. Rating Duncan’s existence on a scale of one to ten, Trent says “I think you’re a three”.
- While on vacation, Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a local water park. Owen is fun, encouraging and protective, and he is idolised by the young boys who frequent the place. But he is also immature, stuck permanently in a kind of adolescence. He lives alone in a squalid apartment at the water park, neglects his managerial duties and puts children at risk for the sake of fun.
Each of the father figures in Duncan’s life is reflected in where they take up residence.
- Duncan’s biological father has literally moved across the country to put space between himself and his son.
- Trent takes his daughter, Pam and Duncan on vacation to stay with him at his beach house, a location that is seemingly luxurious but superficial, claustrophobic and a temporary distraction at best.
- Owen’s water park, so he tells Duncan, was built in 1983 and its original owner mandated that it never change. Like Owen himself, it has not matured except in general shabbiness. Interestingly, Sam Rockwell, who plays Owen, was himself aged 14 in 1983 (the same age as Duncan in 2013) – a real-world fact that’s highly suggestive of the tie between the water park and Owen’s never ending adolescence.
It isn’t hard to dislike Duncan’s biological father and Trent also for the way they treat Duncan and his mother. The film easily works the audience’s sympathies in favour of Owen, who is singularly kind and supportive of Duncan, and helps Duncan to come out of his shell and enjoy himself.
Though he doesn’t say so, Duncan visibly wants Owen to be his father. “I wish I could stay here forever,” Duncan says. And we, the audience, quietly tearful, agree with him.
Duncan has absorbed the best of Owen’s lessons and example but has surpassed Owen, achieving for real what Owen has himself only bullshitted about.
But Owen neatly disabuses Duncan, and the audience along with him, of the notion that he can stay at the water park (and therefore with Owen) forever. Owen owns up to his irresponsibility and tells Duncan not to settle but to carve his own path. Just as a job at the water park is something to be enjoyed briefly in youth but despised as an adult career, wanting Owen to be your father is a dream of youth but isn’t something to be settled for in the long term.
Duncan ends his vacation by accomplishing a legendary feat at the water park: passing Owen in the winding tunnels of the water slide. We part ways with a Duncan who has absorbed the best of Owen’s lessons and example but who has surpassed Owen, achieving for real what Owen has himself only bullshitted about.
Duncan leaves us as a young man who has grown from his summer’s experience. None of the father figures in his life so far have measured up. We are confident that he won’t settle, that he won’t allow his mother to settle, but more importantly that he won’t settle to be a bad father himself.
The film gives us hope that young men can learn from the abundant examples of misused fatherhood and resolve not to conform to those examples, not to fit an inevitable pattern of emulation and decline, but to surpass them and carve their own paths.