“Just How Far Back, Exactly?”
Nat Faxon’s and Jim Rash’s remarkable new comedy, The Way, Way Back offers a remarkable intertextual collision between teen comedies from the 1980s, such as Meatballs (Ivan Reitman, 1979), and far more significant cinema. I want to explore The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) as the quintessential bildungsroman of New Hollywood cinema, and think about the ways in which that film structures Faxon’s and Rash’s intervention in the history of the teenager cinema.
Both Meatballs and The Way, Way Back build their emotional center around a surly adult with a kind heart who mentors a horridly awkward teenager. If anything, Sam Rockwell’s Owen and his tender mentoring of Liam James’ Duncan outdoes in emotional effect Bill Murray’s Tripper and his surly guidance to Chris Makepeace’s Rudy. However, the bawdy comedy of Meatballs mutes the film’s potential as social commentary about the pathos of being a teenager, something Mike Nichols’ The Graduate achieves with startling precision. Ben’s father asks his son, “So what were all those hard years of work at school all for?” to which Ben responds, “Ya got me.”
As different as The Graduate and The Way, Way Back are in terms of the representation of the teenager—Nichols’ film features a 30 year old Dustin Hoffman portraying a college graduate, while The Way, Way Back concerns a 14 year old—the stylistic practices of both films foreground the constrained, trapped sensibility of the American teenager, and end with startlingly ambiguous moments in which we are not at all certain the future offers any relief from the trauma we’ve just endured.
Shortly after Benjamin Braddock lands in Los Angeles, he stands on a people mover at the airport crammed into the right hand fourth of the widescreen frame. Leaving room for the credits, the image posits Benjamin’s fundamental problem: he is horribly alone. After sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, but then falling in love with her daughter, Elaine, Ben finally steps off the symbolic moving walkway, taking action for the first time in the film, almost ninety minutes later, driving furiously from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara to stop Elaine from getting married to another man, Carl, “the make-out king.” In the film’s iconic final image, on the back seat of a city bus, Ben has filled the rest of the film’s frame, with Elaine. However, the long take lasts far too long, and we witness the life drain out of Ben’s and Eliaine’s faces as they begin to ponder what the next years of their lives hold in store. It is not at all clear whether we are witnessing the beginning of their lives together, or the final death of their relationship.
For its part, The Way, Way Back is built around a similar aesthetic presentation of ambiguity. As the film begins, we find Duncan sitting in the very back of the family station wagon, riding backwards because the forward-facing seats are taken by his mother and stepfather, and his older sister lying across the entire back seat. His stepfather Trent, played as a demonic horrorshow by a shockingly precise Steve Carrell, tortures Duncan while his mom, Pam sleeps in the passenger seat. Trent forces Duncan to rate himself on a scale of one to ten. When the awkward teen finally guesses a 6, Trent assures him that he’s really a 3. It is a brutal thing for an adult to do to an emotionally unstable teenager. Trent’s full malevolence is expressed by the camera as well, as we only see Carrell’s face fragmented in close-up through the station wagon’s rear view mirror, capturing Duncan’s disoriented point-of-view.
After Owen, a ne’er do well but kindhearted manager at the local water park has repaired the damage adults have done to Duncan, the film finds itself in its last moments. Even though Duncan has informed Pam of Trent’s adulterous ways, she refuses to leave him. Having nowhere else to go, she is forced to endure his abuse. Cutting their vacation short, the family gets back into the station wagon to drive home. Again, Trent drives while Duncan sits facing backwards in the car. However, this time Duncan’s point of view allows him to escape while Trent fills the car up with gas, running to the water park to say one final goodbye to Owen. Pam rushes to Duncan’s side, meeting Owen for the first time. When the family returns to the car, we know that Pam has discovered for the first time her son’s remarkable transformation. However, at first, when the family members all resume their typical positions in the car, it appears this echoing from the opening moment of the film is merely going to reinforce the sad irony of the ending of The Graduate.
However, Rash and Faxon have saved their most inspired moment for the final frames. As the camera hovers in close-up on Duncan’s face, isolated in the back of the car, Pam jumps over the front seat and sits in the back with her son, also facing backwards but toward the camera. Much to the consternation of the control freak Trent—earlier at the cabin, he reads the directions to the toddler’s board game Candyland when he suspects Duncan is cheating—Pam has shorn herself of his control and now sits symbolically and literally with her adult son Duncan, finding courage in his unlikely transformation. Without the irony inducing long-take of the ending of The Graduate, The Way, Way Back ends on this far more optimistic note.
It is not that The Way, Way Back is a saccharine film that forces impossible happy endings upon us. Instead, unlike The Graduate, it believes transformations, however, small, are possible given the right alchemy of humor and love. As Owen explains to Duncan, you must refuse to follow the patterns of life—he’s talking about a game of Pac-Man, and of course so much more—but instead choose your own way. As such, The Way, Way Back accomplishes a remarkable feat. It drains the surly ambiguous ironies of films like Meatballs and The Graduate, and channels their life force into something far more significant, a portrait of male adolescence as it is mostly lived, in pain, but also as an escapable trauma which is overcome by excellent adult mentoring and the daring to learn what one’s own path in life should be.
– Walter Metz