Finding Rest: Identity and Belonging in Authentic Community

A recent article by Donald Miller (which can be found here), urged me to see the movie The Way Way BackAnd, it did help to see that a favourite of mine, Steve Carell, plays a major role in the film. Miller writes about the difficulty and messiness of relationships — the coming to terms with the fact that “life and love aren’t perfect” and that “choosing to be lonely over a bad relationship is radical self-help.” These are good thoughts, and are helpful in directing us to finding the main thrust of the film.

This is a movie about identity. About self-perception, and how one views him/herself in the world.

In the opening scenes, Trent, (a part played by Carell, and whom we soon discover is the antagonist throughout the story), asks his girlfriend’s son how he views himself on a scale from 1 to 10. “I want to know how you think of yourself,” he states, with his eyes glaring in the rear view mirror. Duncan, the boy, only 14, disapprovingly frowns at this question, and reluctantly gives himself a 6. Trent disagrees, snobbishly declaring him a 3. All this is happening in a station wagon; Duncan is seated in a back seat facing the rear of the vehicle – he is sitting in the “Way Way Back,” looking into the [perhaps?]  past, and with unrest not looking forward to the future.

The future doesn’t look too appealing. Duncan, his mother, Trent, and his daughter, are off to Trent’s summer cottage, with the hopes of–in Trent’s words–“becoming a family some day.”  This is the second major theme in the film: family/community.

Duncan’s transition from socially awkward to socially confident occurs as he finds his place in a family/community. Duncan finds a community — at a water park — where his gifts and abilities are discovered and put to use. Ultimately, he claims that “this is the only place where I am happy.” The filmmaker juxtaposes the organic and pure (though imperfect) community life at the water park with the abnormal and artificial attempt to “being a family” amongst the four who are actually related (or have the potential to be through marriage). The water park family has fun, they laugh, play games, have parties: they celebrate life. The four don’t get along when they’re together, they argue and fight over a silly board game: a failed attempt at family. Ironically, the relational friction and unrest grows at the summer cottage, the very place intended for rest.

The film does not end with any ‘happily-ever-afters’ but it does end with a sense of hope. It ends with a drive back home, and Duncan is back where he was at the opening scene, sitting in the “Way Way Back” of the car and sadly realizing that he is leaving the community that helped him find himself. This time though, his mother jumps over to the back seat to sit with her son, and wordlessly, she lets him know that it will be okay. 

Miller is right to say that “life and love aren’t perfect” – but more curiously it seems that the creator of this story is aware of the inherent human longing to belong. The place of belonging requires commitment to the imperfect community, thus creating the space for individual flourishing. It is not perfect, but the community provides a space where one finds his/her identity, and is empowered to not only receive but to give himself to the cause of that community.

More crucially, for my purposes, it seems that community/family cannot be artificially and programatically created. Authentic community matters greatly, and for it to happen it requires truth, commitment, giving,  and receiving. In these things one can hope for the flourishing of the individual and the community, potentially reaching a place of inner and outer rest – attaining in some degree the human calling to make shalom.