Do you notice that kid who seems to disappear under the radar?
In the shadow of a tragic teen suicide, and a weekend training youth workers to notice and connect with teenagers, I was pleasantly surprised by a film that, interestingly enough, has also slipped under the radar. This movie tugged at my heart for young people in a unique way and is no doubt the best film I’ve seen in literally years now.
The 2013 gem of a film is titled The Way Way Back, with Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and Toni Collette, to name a few. This brilliantly written story introduces an awkwardly shy 14-year-old teen named Duncan whose single mom (Collette) has started dating an unfortunate choice in a boyfriend (Carell). The mismatched bunch go on summer vacation to a beach cabin where Duncan tries his best to escape each day. Duncan finds community in an unlikely place, the Water Wiz Water Park managed by Owen, a free spirited man who befriends Duncan.
This film captured the essence of parenting and youth ministry, specifically three elements:
1. The breakdown of the traditional family
The film begins with Steve Carell’s loathsome character Trent confronting Owen while Owen’s Mom isn’t listening:
Trent: Duncan! On a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think you are?
Duncan: (hesitating to answer) A 6?
Trent: I think you’re a 3!
The film shows an accurate glimpse at the pain of divorce, affairs, dysfunction… even bullying, and the effect this can have on kids today. This catalyst’s Duncan’s desire to escape and seek out a place of security and acceptance outside of the home. Which leads me to the second element…
2. The desire for community
Owen was shy, nerdy and extremely awkward, but most importantly, rejected by many. Young people today understand this feeling well. Even the most popular kids feel struggles of insecurity and the desire to be accepted.
A place to belong.
A place where if you go missing… you are missed.
What was unique about this story was the way in which this reclusive teen discovered community and acceptance. He didn’t consciously seek it out, quite the opposite, in fact. It was only in his attempt to blend in and, at times, disappear that he was discovered by Owen, a caring adult who was keen enough to spot the young man silently crying for help.
Owen didn’t just feel a tug of compassion—he acted on it and made efforts to befriend the kid. Which brings me to the last element this film nailed…
3. The necessity of mentorship
Duncan never knew the love and affirmation of a father. Owen filled that role by simply offering the boy something everyone else had denied: friendship. The very flawed and unlikely mentor took Duncan under his wing, providing him with his first feeling of belonging he had ever experience.
* * *
This PG-13 film reveals a raw, gritty, true-to-life glimpse into the life of someone who feels rejected. The protagonists are flawed and imperfect, but the message of the film is redeeming.
This film is everything I love about parenting and youth ministry.