CRAFT MATTERS: Lessons from The Way, Way Back–Heart & Arc

The Way, Way BackI 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.

AP FILM REVIEW THE WAY WAY BACK A ENTDuncan’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.

The Way Way Back Owen

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 Characters 3

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.

The Way Way Back On A ScaleWhat 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?

7 thoughts on “CRAFT MATTERS: Lessons from The Way, Way Back–Heart & Arc

    • Yes, you don’t want to miss it, Diane. I think you’ll love it. I want to see it a second time before it leaves the theaters. Hopefully it goes to DVD quickly. ;0)

  1. I particularly like the mom’s ‘essence’ moment. When Pam realizes that letting Trent (an amazing job as the villain by Steve Carell) treat her like a spineless good time girl who will ignore both his mistreatment of her and her son is not who she really is, she opts out of the bad relationship and into her true self, loyal to her son and herself. And I agree, MacKenzie, that the arc…the change…is the thing in a story. As readers, who likes the static character from beginning to end? As for heart, yes! I once knew an editor who gave this advice, “punish your heroine, and then let her overcome”. Love your blog!

  2. Marsha ~ You are so right. That moment when she moves fully into her essence (thank you, Michael Hague) is an awesome moment. I thought, thank God. Finally. And I breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  3. Hey Mac! You have definitely perked my interest for this film. I *love* Sam Rockwell as an actor so it’s an added bonus that the film is actually good.

    I really do appreciate a story in which the h/h grows. I just watched Argo, Reds and Walk The Line on a long flight across the pond. While I enjoyed the action of Argo and Reds, the movie that touched my heart was WTL, because we see so clearly the demons facing Johnny Cash and June Carter. Johnny didn’t need a writer to put him through hell, he did it to himself, lol. I admit that with my growth arc, I prefer a happy ending. I’m not into stories where the suffering is acute and unresolved. Nope. I’ll definitely be checking out The Way, Way Back. thanks for the recommendation!

  4. I have seen the movie, Mackenzie, and it was a surprise for me, too. A happy one! I think your study of the movie is right on. I love the character arc of all the characters and the boyfriend is right out of Dickens. All of us have known parents and psuedo parents just like him, so it cast a real state of reality to it. I remember the vulnerability around being that young in the world and how painful and uncertain it can be and the character in the movie brought all of that back. But given all the pain in circumstance, there were character who made me laugh and made me feel. You were right about it all. If you are going to take a reader journey with a writer, you have to love the guide. Thank you for taking this movie story a part and letting me see it from another POV. You are right on in your analysis and I you helped me expand on my view of character. That’s why I love your writing.

  5. Mackenzie, I think this movie contained one of the most perfect heroic moments of any movie I’ve seen – or at least in a long, long time. It would be a spoiler to mention it, but that the writer’s used a secondary character was just beautiful. I also liked the very gentle romance between Duncan and Susanna, and that in many ways her role as ‘reflection character’ to Duncan.
    Craft does matter. Whether in the choices the writers make – or the actors. Steve Carell as the a**hat mom’s boyfriend made me cringe and want to kill him. Rub his face in the dirt. I loved Toni Colette’s arc, too. Marsha discussed this in her post already, but it bears mentioning. And finally, Liam James… wow, from that hunched over young teen, embarrassed and awkward and just trying to fade into the background, to who he becomes at the waterpark was fairly amazing.
    Oh, and I really loved that the writers didn’t descend into cliche or take the easy way.
    Thanks for your post, Mackenzie – I can’t wait to see this movie again!

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