Most teens might jump at the chance to spend a summer by the beach. But for 14-year-old Duncan, the prospect leaves him about as excited as spending a month at Rikers Island. There, they just expect you to do your time—not be happy about it. At Alcatraz, no one forces you to smile.
Duncan has little to smile about. Trent, his mother's boyfriend, owns a Massachusetts beach house and has planned a long summer getaway (along with Trent's teenage daughter, Steph) as their first "family" vacation. But to Duncan, they sure don't feel like family. Steph only acknowledges her would-be stepbrother when scorning or mocking him. And Trent? Well, he's just kind of a jerk.
Initially, the summer goes exactly as Duncan had feared: He watches his mother yuk it up with Trent's loud, boozy friends. He endures constant cuts from Steph and belittling advice from Trent. And so Duncan leaves the house for longer and longer to avoid the caustic environment, spending hours by himself, alone.
One day he finds a bike—a pink one with a basket in front and streamers on the handles—and rides downtown. He meets a guy named Owen who is furiously playing Pac-Man. Duncan mentions that there's a trick to the game—a pattern to follow that'd make it a lot easier. Owen waves him off. What fun is that? he says. Just following a pattern?
Mid-game, Owen gets called away. He manages a local water park (though "presides" might be a better term, as his managing skills are negligible) and needs to get to work. But he still has a life left on the game, so he asks Duncan to finish up.
"No pattern on my quarter," he calls back. "Cut your own pattern."
Duncan's little wafer gobbler dies before Duncan can even move the joystick. Yet in this chance meeting, Duncan senses his prison door crack open just a bit.
Maybe the summer doesn't have to be so horrible after all.
Duncan winds up working at Owen's water park, where he's taken under the older man's rather scraggly wing … and thrives.
Now the environment at the water park isn't exactly wholesome, and we'll get into some of those problems later. But we can't just sprint past the genuine and positive influence the park, its staff and Owen make in this young teen's life. Duncan came to the beach house in desperate need of both a friend and a father figure. Owen, in his own flawed way, becomes both.
When Duncan looks and acts as awkward as a baby ostrich on ice, Owen ribs him and encourages him—making him feel like he's part of something. And the more Owen makes Duncan feel at home, the more Duncan is at home. Owen's fatherly love for the boy makes a huge difference—giving Duncan more of what he needs to grow than all of Trent's condescension and loveless strictures can.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul told us that without love, we are nothing. This movie illustrates that kind of love, showing us that deep and genuine affection can heal and salve our brokenness in a way that nothing else can.
Owen tells a story of one person passing another in a water slide tube. Because the tube was covered, only the people in the tube and "Jesus Christ our Lord" know exactly how it was done. But Jesus, Owen says, isn't telling. Owen also jokes that he and Jesus both came to a party wearing the same shirt once; Owen says it's been awkward between them ever since.
The Way, Way Back mostly takes place around beaches and water parks, so we see many young women wearing bikinis and other barely there outfits.
Duncan is taught how best to ogle pretty girls about to zip down a water slide, and the camera zooms in and lingers on their behinds. Steph gets angry when Duncan looks at her as she strips off a shirt to reveal her swimsuit, calling him a "perv." A neighbor, Betty, tells the bikini-clad Steph, "That's exactly the kind of suit that got me pregnant the first time." Still, Betty's own shirt is unbuttoned halfway to her navel (revealing a great deal of cleavage), and she talks about how it wouldn't take much for her to perform graphic sex acts on some of her neighbors. She also mentions in passing that her ex-husband has "come out" (which she says explains their lack of sexual intimacy).
Duncan is given a pair of unlined swimming trunks his first day on the job; the guy renting them warns him to be careful so his "junk" doesn't show. Shortly thereafter, Duncan loses the shorts after careening down a slide. (We see the trunks floating in the water.)
Trent and Pam—who are unmarried, you'll remember—are obviously in a sexual relationship. They kiss frequently. He grabs her rear and encourages the kids to leave when they first arrive at the beach house so the two of them can have some "alone time."
Trent has also had a longstanding affair with Joan, the wife of one of his best friends on the beach (Kip). Trent and Joan kiss and caress. While Trent halfheartedly tries to keep his distance from Joan, their illicit relationship doesn't end. He winds up spending most of a night with Joan and then lies to Pam about it. The affair permeates the story and undergirds much of the film's unspoken tension.
Joan dances seductively with Duncan. (Kip says she's "grinding" with him.) Duncan is attracted to a pretty neighbor, Susanna, and they eventually kiss. Teen girls make suggestive remarks about boys on the beach. Owen seems to be in a relationship with an adult water park employee named Caitlyn. But while the two banter a lot (and Owen tells Duncan that Caitlyn's wowed by his "sexual charisma"), they don't ever kiss.
One water park employee is said to have two dads. Peter, Betty's 12-year-old son, plays under a table with Star Wars action figures of Luke and Leia, pretending the two of them are making out. When Duncan mentions that they're siblings, Peter says, "Yeah, so?" A kitschy wooden mermaid seems to be bare-breasted. Reference is made to venereal disease. Betty casually gossips about a rape.
Trent and Duncan get into a pushing confrontation on the beach—one that leads to Duncan physically pushing his mother away too. When three boys get stuck in a water slide, Owen sends down a big guest to unblock the flow. (We don't see the ensuing collision.) Someone jokes about drinking alone and then committing suicide.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and nine s-words. God's name is misused about 15 times, including an indistinct pairing with "d‑‑n." One woman says of another, "She called me a C U next Tuesday!" We hear "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑k," sometimes spoken by children. We see an obscene gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Adults frequently seem impaired, be it through alcohol or other substances. They drink a lot (beer, wine, margaritas), and it's insinuated that they're smoking marijuana too. Owen chews on an unlit cigar. A conversation revolves around passing out from excessive drinking. A private party at the water park boasts alcohol. (When Duncan's 12-year-old friend, Peter, reaches for a beer at the party, Owen steers him clear.)
Duncan and Susanna, the film's underage protagonists, avoid alcohol. But the same cannot be said of Steph and her teen friends. She takes beer literally from under her father's nose and has no problem pilfering it from the fridge. She tells her friends that because her father sees her just twice a year, he'll do anything to make her happy. Steph's friends think that's an ideal father-daughter relationship. "I'm going to do drugs with my kids," one says.
Other Negative Elements
Duncan doesn't tell anyone that he's working at the water park until the end of his stay. Accordingly, he spends hours of unexplained time away from the beach house. Several times, Pam and others worry about his whereabouts. One night, he and Peter stay with Duncan's water park friends all night long, leaving the parents of both to worry. When Betty starts chastising Peter over being gone so long, the youngster retorts, "Leave me alone, woman!"
In this example and others like it, respect for grown-ups is a rarity. Adults and children snipe and swear, all of which culminates in Duncan's lashing out against his wannabe stepfather.
Adults can be such children.
That's the overarching thought in The Way, Way Back, a story about growth and regression—but mostly the latter. Though the movie takes place in contemporary times, almost everything we see feels like a throwback to the 1980s, from the music to the video games to Trent's car. Even the water park, we learn, was built in 1983, with its founder demanding that it never change. So here, on a couple of acres of beach chairs and chlorine, it will be 1983 forever.
Such is the backdrop for the devolution of the film's adults. When Pam learns Trent is cheating on her, for instance, she responds like an insecure teenage girl and chooses to stay with him not out of love, but out of fear. Trent considers himself a decent father figure, but his irresponsibility undercuts his authority. Owen is a tank-top-wearing man-child, shouldering only the barest of responsibilities. And beach house parents drink themselves silly and party all night long, leaving money on the kitchen counter for the kids to fend for themselves.
"It's like spring break for adults," Susanna tells Duncan.
It's as if they are searching for lost youth but they've arrived at a narcissistic Pleasure Island of childish and irresponsible behavior that turns them into strange, pitiable creatures. When a man like Owen is the closest thing we have to an adult role model, it's pretty sad.
And so children, as is the case in so many coming-of-age movies, are forced to raise themselves. That's the point—and the central tragedy—of The Way, Way Back.
Amid these damaged relationships, glimpses of growth do occasionally shine through. After getting a tongue-lashing from Caitlyn, Owen shows up early the next day to prove he can be more responsible. Pam, despite her fears, eventually demonstrates love and support for Duncan that's largely been lacking during her dysfunctional relationship with Trent.
But it's Duncan who grows the most. The vacation proves to be more sanctuary than the prison he feared—a cocoon in which to grow and develop. So when Trent and Pam decide to pack up the fam and leave, Duncan's broken up: He'd love to stay. But deep down, perhaps, he understands that these precious times only last for a season. He says his goodbyes, makes one more rush down the water slide and leaves … with a smile.
As he and his makeshift family drive away, he faces backward—looking back on Owen, the water slide, the summer, his past. But the station wagon keeps moving on, taking Duncan, Pam, Trent and Steph into a future that, like it or not, comes to us all.
It's a touching conclusion and a poignant reminder of how much love and stability we all need as we grow up. It's less clear whether one needs to splash down into a movie like this in order to ponder that life lesson.