I had heard nothing about this movie when I stepped into the theater. A friend wanted to go and I was up for a night out. I ended up absolutely loving The Way, Way Back. It felt like the perfect story. So I tried to figure out why I loved this story so much and it came down to two things for me: Heart & Arc.
First off, the writer made us care about the protagonist right away by giving us a male father figure who was picking on him. We immediately had empathy for Duncan, the protagonist. And as the story began to unfold, we saw that he was a good kid who cares about others & clearly cares about his mom and dad, who have divorced and are pursuing other relationships.
Duncan’s awkwardly shy. What 14-year-old isn’t? He walks with his shoulders hunched and his chin down. Self-esteem isn’t his strong suit at the beginning of the movie. And is it any wonder why? His mom and dad recently divorced, and both are pushing their son off, making him feel like he’s not wanted. Duncan doesn’t belong, even among his own family.
So he starts to wander away during the day, go explore town. He’s encouraged, at his first meeting with Owen, the true hero of this movie, to break out of the mold, disregard patterns, and find his own way while playing a game of PAC Man. And that’s what this coming of age movie is all about–a young boy who has been beaten up by life gaining the strength and courage he needs to stand up and find his own way.
The family or community Duncan discovers when he gets away from his summer house is wonderfully quirky and they accept him just as he is, but they also challenge him to grow, to move out of his comfort zone, to take chances, and to become a man. These characters bring the comedic relief in this heart-wrenching tale. Owen and his band of employees are hilarious. They’re an island of misfits themselves–adults who never grew up; a virtual colony of lost boys amid an aging water park.
The Way, Way Back is an amazing story of heart and growth and healing. It shows us what happens when a character is unwilling to change (the mom’s boyfriend) and what possibilities lay ahead when you’re willing to grow and change (Owen & Duncan & Duncan’s mom).
It was a simple story really–a boy who must adjust to the break-up of his family. But it had so much heart and soul that it became a living breathing intricately interwoven morality tale in an age where kids can often suffer the most from broken marriages.
What I learned best from this movie is the importance of heart–touching those emotional heart strings, telling a story that matters to people and giving them characters who matter to them–and the necessity for your characters to arc. Just about every one of the characters in this story had a growth arc–except the antagonist. There’s a lesson buried in there for writers. Don’t consign your secondary characters to emotional ground zero, where they have nowhere to go. Let them grow. Let them arc. Your story will be richer for it. And your readers will care about all of them, not just the protagonist. And that will bring them back for your next story and your next.
If you have not seen it, do. You won’t be sorry!
Did you see The Way, Way Back? What did you love about it? If not, what other movies out there have impacted you and made you feel like you’d just experienced the perfect story?