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Is The Way Way Back Really Funny Funny Funny?

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The plot line in this film is the transformation of fourteen-year-old Duncan from a morose teen into one who can embrace life during the space of a few weeks at a beach resort somewhere in Massachusetts. Billed as a "dream comedy," it is a movie that men apparently like a lot. Women, maybe not so much. We will get to the reason for that in a minute.


Duncan's parents are divorced and because his dad is getting settled in San Diego with his new love, Duncan is forced to spend his vacation with his mother and her new boyfriend, Trent, at Trent's beach cottage. It is a time when parents more or less abandon their kids to have what one teen observes is sort of "a spring break for adults."


The plot builds slowly as Duncan refuses to participate in vacation activities and Trent demonstrates his cluelessness on how to handle it. Duncan's path to a change in mood begins when he discovers a Stingray bike in the shed and comes across a water theme park in his travels.


Duncan's unhappiness is painful, but the comic relief only serves to make some of us women, at least, uncomfortable. For instance, as soon as Duncan et al arrive at the cottage, the woman next door, drink in hand, barrels over to welcome them in an overly exuberant fashion with a special big "hello" to Trent. It becomes obvious that this aging party girl has become a full-blown alcoholic. It is hard to laugh at her when her addiction serves to make her rather pathetic.

One of Duncan's first experiences in his initiation into male culture with its frat-boy sense of humor happens when Owen, the manager of Water Wizz, shows him around. As a bikini-clad young woman stands ready to jump on a pad for the ride down a tubular chute, a smirking attendant holds her in place while the camera focuses on her butt so Duncan can learn to ogle like a real guy. It's a laugh for the guys in the audience, but for many of us women it is a painful trip down memory lane to those times when we ourselves were the "objects" of such derision.

Owen becomes the catalyst that snaps Duncan out of his verbal paralysis. After he gives Duncan a job at Water Wizz, he teaches him the importance of showing up on time. He advises him to stake out his own place in the world and to understand that Trent's problems have nothing to do with him

But Owen is actually a poor role model for how to do your job as shown by the distress he inflicts on his attractive assistant. Owen also enjoys hazing practices such as the water dump that he has instituted for his employees when they cease to be employed there.

Water Wizz reflects the reality that this is a whites-only resort. No people of color are to be seen except when Duncan is assigned the task of stopping two people of color from poaching on Water Wizz's turf by showing off their dance moves and collecting coins for their performance from an appreciative audience.  

But wait, one more appears. Owen requests a volunteer from kids in line for a ride to help dislodge three youngsters who are blocking passage down the chute. No one raises a hand. Suddenly, a muscular black teen pushes his way forward, offering his help. The camera shifts to the inside of the chute to catch the frightened looks on the blockers' faces as they see who is going to come at them. Perhaps the script writers would care to explain why they liked the idea of inserting into their film yet another negative stereotype of blacks as threatening.  

In the end, Duncan's mother finds that the spring break atmosphere of this vacation has exposed some unpleasant traits in her boyfriend's character: Namely, a tendency to infidelity and a capacity for emotional abuse. In the final scene, she chooses to be with her son during the drive home when she leaves Trent to climb over the seats in the station wagon to sit with Duncan in the way, way back.

In spite of its hype, the film hardly "turns the familiar into something bracingly fresh and funny." It seems very much like the same old, same old.

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Now retired and a writer, I am a feminist and political activist, a radical Democrat (have come to dislike the term "progressive"), and a blogger. Have done political tours of Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, West and East (way back when)Germany, (more...)

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