Just three posts ago I wrote about reviewing in websites like Amazon or IMBD. Today I’m opening this post with my eyebrows raised because the IMDB reviews I’ve just been reading for a film I enjoyed last night (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back, 2013) seem to describe ten different films. The average rating for the film is 7’4. For me it’s an 8. For 7605 voters this is a 10, for 629 this is a 1 (IMDB does not allow 0s). How can I recommended it in view of this? How can anyone recommend anything, I wonder?
I’m taking then an oblique angle on the film to say: Potterheads, if you care to see a successful Muggle version of the Harry-Sirius relationship, this is it. For this a story about a teen boy, Duncan, who finds someone who cares, Owen. And what I love about Owen, and possibly what any Potterhead loves about Sirius, is that neither has the obligation to care. Yet they do.
Let me explain. Most teen pics focus on 16-year-olds discovering how to empower themselves in relation to their parents and peers. Duncan is, in contrast, totally disempowered. He’s just 14, that uncomfortable age in which he cannot yet refuse going on a summer holiday with his mum, her obnoxious new boyfriend and his odious teen daughter. Raised by a divorced mother too scared, as she confesses, to face life alone, and distant from a father who does not care for him, Duncan needs badly a reliable man in his life. Trent, the boyfriend, is simply hateful –a Dursley if I’ve seen one. At the film’s start he asks Duncan how he’d rate himself on a scale from 1 to 10. The boy, confused and upset, answers 6. Trent (based on a stepfather of one of the film directors) replies that for him Duncan’s just a 3. What kind of man, later Duncan wonders, would ask a boy a question like that?
As I’ve been arguing for years, the main topic of US cinema is not romantic love but the father-son bond. Fun or tragic, Leia and Han Solo, Amidala and Annakin are not the centre of the story –the centre is Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke Skywalker that he’s Luke’s father. Whether close or absent, fathers are mostly inadequate, as films written by men have been complaining for about three decades. Fight Club (both novel and film) has that devastating dialogue in which Tyler Durden and his alter ego (or viceversa) come to the conclusion, after discussing how useless their absent fathers are, that “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Indeed no. The answer is an (alternative) father figure.
As fantasy father figures go, Owen is great. He’s, I think, what Sirius could have been without the long years in prison, the bitterness. Even though Owen is the embodiment of irresponsibility when it comes to his own life and job (he manages a water park), he acts very responsibly by Duncan. He takes the boy under his wing, gives him a job and embarks him on a programme aimed at raising his self-esteem, dispelling his overwhelming shyness. It works reasonably well given the short span Duncan spends (secretly) under Owen’s tutelage. Harry would have been so happy to have Sirius help him this way.
Funnily, neither the film nor the reviewers note how complicated navigating the matter of sexuality is here. A spectator does complain that the film is sexually too sanitized, another one that Duncan’s mother is too careless about the company his son keeps. The boy simply does not tell his mother where he’s working and who for, and this seems right for, surely, relationships between boys and adult men are so contaminated by the sad reality of abuse that it’s hard to imagine how the fine friendship that develops in the film could happen in real life.
The Way, Way Back is a very simple tale in comparison to Harry Potter, and there’s absolutely no need for Owen to sacrifice himself at all as Sirius does. What the film highlights for me is how necessary the intervention of well-meaning adults is for young people (and I also include girls) beyond the family circle. Yet, if the intervention of adults entitled to help, such as teachers, is difficult enough, imagine how impossible to digest is the presence of someone like Owen –who helps Duncan just because he feels like doing it.
You may undermine all this by arguing that in reality Owen would seek some satisfaction, whether sexual or emotional, but, well, I’m not discussing reality, I’m discussing fantasy, for this is a fantasy no doubt. What the directors and screen playwrights are showing is wishful thinking, but as it always happens with wishful thinking what matters is the absence, the lack it is built on.
Food for thought, there in Hollywood and here.
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