The Way-Way Back: A Movie Review. Sort Of.

I don’t normally review movies because when I read other reviews I feel like there’s a certain language that must be utilized. A language in which I’m not schooled. Words like “captures” and “nuanced” and “cinematic proportions” usually send me glancing at the margins for trailers for the “Coming Soon” selections. The truth is, the less I know about a movie, the better. I’ll watch the trailer or read a quick description on IMDB and that’s all I want. If it seems interesting, I’ll watch it. If not, I’ll skip it. I used to be a movie-hound. I’d see almost anything in the theaters—the atmosphere alone entertained me. But these days, most movies are skipped. I’ve found that my age plus my reading “habit” plus my lack of patience for just about anything that reeks of video-game graphics and poorly developed characters equals staying home almost every single time. I’ll just rent it, thank you, so that I can turn it off when I’m predictably disappointed.

There are some great films, however, that grab my attention at trailer-time and I decide to take the risk and pay for the astronomical ticket fee. But 9 times out of 10 these are independent films, not the blockbuster Hollywood movies, and therefore I have to go to an independent theater to see them. I don’t know why it took me so long to find my way to such films…let me pause for a minute on that word. Films. Not movies, films. That’s the difference, you know, between award winners and commercial bank-breakers–the language. It’s like comparing Twilight to the latest National Book Award winner. Candy to five-course dinner. No contest.

Anyway…like all art, film is subjective and so even the award winners and the buzz-causers may not do a thing for you. And that is the way it’s supposed to be. That is the purpose of art and entertainment—to hit each and every one of us in a different way. When I watch movies with my family, which isn’t all that often anymore because of our diverse tastes, the proof is in their varied responses, based on age, experience, and understanding. But I had a hunch that this movie would be a winner for everyone.

The Way-Way Back is a quiet film. (Oh…now, here I go with the review language.) It’s about a mother (Toni Collette) and her son going on a summer vacation to the cape with her boyfriend and his daughter. They are about to become a blended family and this is the first joint trip and very much a test to all parties. The potential step-father, played by Steve Carell, treats his potential son rather terribly and the movie opens with the boy sitting in the way-way back of the family station wagon with Carell berating him while the others sleep. It sets the tone immediately—you know right from the start that this movie is about the boy finding his own way, his independence and exodus from this man.

If this were a traditional review, I’d tell you next to everything that happens, but I can’t bring myself to do that because if there’s anything I hate more than bad reviews, it’s spoilers. What I do want to share, is that throughout the course of the movie, which touches on deep subjects from blended families to infidelity to smoking pot, my kids were totally in to it. I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about it, especially the 10 year old, because it wasn’t The Hobbit and it certainly wasn’t Captain America.  But it captured even his attention, most likely because the story held so much truth. Even though he was in a situation my kids couldn’t quite relate to, they felt for the main character. They understood his plight. They were rooting for him.

Which is why, in the end, my 10 year old had a fit.

Without spoiling the movie or making you think the ending is sad—because it’s not—my son just didn’t understand it. He’s used to movies where it’s good versus evil and the ending is black and white—good always wins in a very obvious victory. In the Way-Way Back, good still wins, but good is not as lovely and pure as we always wish it to be. Sometimes there are sacrifices and compromises and means to an end. But he didn’t get that and what had been a fun movie night turned into a “I’ve been betrayed by Hollywood” moment.  It was actually kind of funny, from an adult perspective, and I tried to explain why it ended the way it did but he just wouldn’t accept it. I knew I had to chalk it up to the ignorance of youth and that someday, maybe when he was older, he’d give the movie another chance and then he’d understand the ending and appreciate it.

Turns out, it didn’t take that long after all.

Tonight, I came out of my writing space and downstairs in the living room my son watched TV. I passed through the room, grabbed myself a snack in the kitchen and then came back and he had an inexpiable  look on his face. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “You look guilty.” My older son said, “Because he’s watching that.”  I thought I’d look at the TV and see some rated-R flick or a particular cartoon made for adults that I detest. But no. He was watching The Way-Way Back.

Art leaves an impact. Good, bad, confusing, ugly, truth, lies—call it whatever you want. But it is important, in all forms, for learning about the world, understanding other people and becoming. Rebecca Solnit says: “The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist.”

I don’t know if he understands the movie yet. But he is trying to and the act of trying is the act of becoming. And that is about the best thing a mother could ever ask for.