Growing Up for Grownups

Coming of age movies areduncan about adolescents, right? And we still watch them after we’ve left coming of age in the dust because, what, we’re nostalgic? Or we hope to get some insight regarding our own adolescence and the crud we went through growing up ourselves?

These were the thoughts rumbling through my head the last few days as I’ve read the reviews of The Way, Way Back, the coming-of-age movie de jour. It’s about Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old with a distracted divorced mom whose boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), is an unmitigated jerk. The Way, Way Back is up to 87% on the Tomatometer, receiving lots of raves from reviewers and ordinary moviegoers alike. It sounds terrific, and I’m thinking I’ll even pay full price to see it as soon as I can scrape together the cash.

No doubt it’s a wistful hearkening for days of yore, but I’ll still fork over to see these kinds of movies—like Mud earlier this summer and Super 8 a couple years back. They do tend to be associated with summer, which is itself evocative, and my guess is that most of these films probably premiere in the summer months as well. Coming of age, warm weather, vacation—they all seem to go together.huckleberry

It’s a genre with a noble pedigree, including standouts like Breaking Away (1979) and Stand By Me (1986), but, really, they’re all just rehashed Mark Twain, at least the ones about boys. Alienation and separation from parents (especially dad) is a mainstay, and the assumption of a task or mission, usually involving danger, provides narrative scaffolding. Usually there’s a replacement father, and often a love interest, but the heart of every coming of age story is the protagonist charting his own course—Huck Finn setting off down the Mississippi with a runaway slave in other words. It’s a familiar theme, and The Way, Way Back, from all reports, does it justice.

So, with all that in mind, I watched the trailer, and…I got all choked up.

“Really?” my wife asked me when I showed it to her. “That made you cry?” My teens were incredulous as well. “He sure is going soft in his old age,” is what I imagine they were thinking as they shook their heads. No matter; I admit it: The trailer made me cry—yes, just the trailer. If you’re a parent, especially a dad, maybe it’ll make you cry, too

Here’s why, I think.

The introspection that films like this often inspire in the middle-aged and their elders is backward looking, and often fruitful and needed—we think back, we reflect, we process, we sigh. The producers and marketers know this, I’m sure, and they tailor these movies as much for people like me looking back as for actual coming-of-age adolescents looking forward. After all, it’s about ticket sales, isn’t it? Hit as many demographic groups as possible!

Yet there’s something about The Way, Way Back that makes it forward oriented for both audience demographics, despite the title—at least based on the reviews and the trailer. I saw lots of screwed up adults in the clips, but even that short two and a half minutes radiated joy and vitality and an overarching hope that somehow Duncan would be OK, that he was going to do just fine despite the parents and grownups in his life.

For me, an insecure parent haunted by regrets and doubt, who knows he’s made lots of mistakes he can’t undo, and who is clumsily trying to make up lost time by grasping at family living like a desperate rock climber grasping at belays and fissures—for me? Even that short trailer was a blissful reminder that it’s not all up to me in any case. My wife and I are players in the lives of our children, and critically important players at that, but we’re still only players—there are others.

And the other players aren’t always the ones we’d expect or choose, another note this film apparently (I’m guessing here) gets right. Sam Rockwell plays Owen, a unselfconscious wounded healer free of ambition who becomes Duncan’s surrogate father. “You gotta’ go your own way,” Owen tells Duncan, “and you, my friend, are going your own way.” He builds up where Carell’s Trent tears down, and Owen pointedly reminds Duncan’s mom, “You’ve got a helluva’ kid here.”

A bonus big plus is that The Way, Wway-way-back-rockwellay Back avoids peddling a feel-good story in a neat two-hour package with an unrealistic horizon. “You don’t see too many movies about the importance of fathers, and they’re rarely done this well,” writes Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Rockwell is the good father figure, and Carell the awful one, but Carell is too sensitive to play a total monster.” In other words, even when we screw up? It’s redeemable.

Pope Francis gets at this in his new encyclical—the idea of marriage and having kids appearing like a huge gamble that’s still doable to the degree that it is infused with love, particularly Love from the source.

Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love. Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person (Lumen Dei, 52).

“Possible,” “sustains,” “enables,” “helps”—these are words of hope, not surety. Marriage and raising kids is not math,  it’s not a lab assignment. It’s a messy adventure filled with risk and reward, for which we’re all ill equipped, and we’ll muck it up time and time again. No question.

It sounds like this movie, though, offers a heaping serving of perspective on all that, and can provide us paranoid parents with just the right dose of insight into how God can fill in the gaps we can’t prevent in our children’s lives. Not much of a revelation when you think about it. He gave us the kids and put us in charge for a while, but they’re His. God loves them more than we do, and He’s more than capable of caring for them when we fall short.

So, all this from a handful of reviews and a single trailer? A bit much, perhaps? Maybe it was just an exceptionally good trailer. Perhaps. Let’s say that’s the case, and I never get a chance to see the movie itself, and this whole post is an embarrassing exercise in presumption and hauteur.

Look, my kids are getting older and college is on the horizon for them, and the time is slipping through my fingers like water—not sand, mind you, water. If a 2-1/2 minute trailer can jostle my sullen spirit and restore my confidence in Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well,” then so be it. I’ll take it. And maybe I’ll save the $7 for a different movie another day.

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