I seem to have this trouble with commitment. Not in the hand-holding face-licking way (well, I do have a problem with face-licking in that no one seems to want to lick mine) but in the way where I need to run up against hard deadlines to write. Which is dumb. Because if I just wrote and edited a bit every day I’d have to have some sort of actually readable piece of writing right now. I don’t know what it would be, but it would be something: a fantasy novel, a travel log, a stream-of-consciousness cookbook. An unmarketable book of sad poetry with illustrations in blood. Whatever. I want to produce something instead of just indulging in my constant consumption of words and other stimuli.
So I’m going to make a commitment to…blogging. Yes, it sounds as stupid to me as it does to you. But I don’t have an English or writing class on my schedule next semester, so I’m going to need some way to keep building my chops. And who knows if I can actually follow through with this commitment because I’m failing Camp Nanowrimo pretty spectacularly right now. But still, I am determined to freaking write at least a hundred words on this blog every day until the end of December or I’ll…
Whatever. You get the idea.
So day one. Yesterday I my sister took me to see The Way Way Back which, in my opinion, was a remarkable movie. It was a trope-filled, if not hackneyed, buildingsroman/coming-of-age deal and if I were seventeen again I would be posting pictures of Liam James (who played Duncan, the lead) on my wall, because if I’ve got a type it’s dark-haired, pasty, and Hollywood awkward. But neither he nor the vaguely-indie cinematography is what captured me about the film. The screenplay did. I had to keep chewing it over and over in the back of my mind. I love how it was essentially a YA novel in movie form and it did it much better than the actual movie-izations of actual YA novels.
Synopsis: “An awkward yet intelligent young boy begins to make his transition into adulthood over the course of one transformative summer in this bittersweet coming-of-age comedy-drama. Sensing that he’s drifting away from his mother Pam during a summer vacation with her, her domineering boyfriend Trent, and Trent’s daughter Steph, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) gets a job at a water park, and gains some much-needed self confidence under the guidance of happy-go-lucky park employee Owen, who approaches life from a fresh new perspective.”
Well, isn’t that lovely. But.
The synopsis doesn’t really do justice to the film. For one thing Duncan, our hero, isn’t really a “young boy.” That descriptor makes me think he’s seven. He’s fourteen: one of the most painful ages I can remember, and he is quite “awkward yet intelligent” I’ll give you that.
But The Way Way Back leaves its synopsis far behind in one respect: the movie deals with its characters complexly. Of course, some would disagree. Susanna, the movie’s psuedo-love interest, treads dangerously close to manic pixie dream girl territory, for example, and Owen’s obviously complex past is never properly explained. But imagine these characters as they appear in the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy and they start to make sense. He doesn’t see Susanna’s kindness or her motivations clearly. He sees her as an attractive, slightly older girl who pays attention to him. He wouldn’t think to delve into his mentor’s past, either: being self-absorbed is the default state of a fourteen-year-old.
That isn’t to say that our protagonist isn’t picking up on the complexities of the world around him. Duncan sees the nuances of the character relationships between the adults of the film. And to the credit of the screenwriters: all of these complicated relationships are subtly laid out far before they explode.
And explode they do. Because even though Duncan takes notice of their lives, he still doesn’t understand the maddeningly complex motivations that drive the adult characters. His mind is still straightforward, like a child’s. He doesn’t understand how his mother can’t just fix her problems. Duncan doesn’t feel her loneliness or know why she might sacrifice her son’s happiness out of fear of that loneliness. He doesn’t understand why all the grown ups regress to adolescence when they spend their summer at the beach. But throughout the movie, Duncan is learning to deal with the world complexly, and in my mind he’s learned the first lesson on the road to adulthood: grown ups aren’t infallible. Not even your parents.
That isn’t to say the film has a simplistic view of parents. For one thing, all the parents are divorced and not without their own struggles. But there is sympathy: it shows in how Susanna’s boozy, “bad” mother can still love her kids, even if she doesn’t always go about it in the right way.
For all of its hackneyed tropes, I still wouldn’t say that the movie has a traditional heroic arc, where our protagonist leaves home, slays whatever metaphorical demons he needs to, and becomes a man. For one thing there’s no underworld, no beast to slay. Well…maybe there is, but Trent drives the car and our hero still doesn’t get a chance to stab him by the end of the movie. For another, there’s no reward at the end of the film: nothing definite, anyway, other than a physically dubious trick on the slide of a water park. Instead, our protagonist is only just embarking on a journey into complexity, which is one we all take in our formative years. And while that might not be something to celebrate (Holden Caulfield spends a whole book fearing the impure adult world) our hero has made it so far without really losing his innocence. And, as implied by his overgrown boy of a mentor, our hero has many journeys yet.
But don’t fear too much for him, or the loss of innocence that awaits him: there is a moment at the end of the film that shows that, while adults make poor decisions, they sometimes make the right ones too. And through that moment the audience realizes the brilliance of The Way Way Back: almost every character changes by the end, not just Duncan. The changes are not quite noticeable at first, because we’re watching through fourteen-year-old eyes, but they’re there. And here’s the second Catcher in the Rye reference for today: the journey into complexity is not a one-way fall from innocence, and at the end of his novel J.D. Salinger uses a carousel to represent it. By doing so he shows that the journey to complexity is actually cyclical: made ’round and ’round as we humans continually spin to and away from innocence. Duncan, our boy hero, may just be on his first trip through this cycle, but every character, adult or adolescent, is in fact on the carousel as well. None of the sympathetic characters is static. And sitting in the audience we too realize there is a ’round and ’round motion in our own lives. We’re all on that journey, that carousel, of constant development. Which means we’ll always look at the world ever more complexly, while still swinging back to innocence. I’m okay with that.