Watching The Way, Way Back called to mind those Diary of a Wimpy Kid books*. How can that be when one is a tenderly vulnerable coming-of-age drama and the other is a series of deliberately unpolished, brashly misanthropic illustrated books for the elementary school set? I know it’s an odd connection to make, but bear with me.
Once upon a time, I worked as a children’s librarian, and that was during an era when the Wimpy Kid was A) insanely popular and B) controversial. The series drew scorn from a certain type of parent for all the usual reasons: It isn’t a “timeless classic” they read as a kid. It models inappropriate behaviors. It’s completely insubstantial (i.e., “they’re just cartoons”). It’s junk food for kids’ brains. Blah, blah, blah, hell, hand basket, something, something**.
Anyway, because it was my job to have an informed opinion on such things, I read all of the books that existed at that time (I think there are at least twice as many by now). And I actually thought they were terribly clever, but at the same time, I found them too frustrating to be truly entertaining. And here’s where we arrive at the point. What TWWB and the Wimpy Kid share is keen observation of the reality of youth. They remind me of the lives children really lead every day, and they put me back in a kid’s shoes. And that is somewhere I never want to be again. Ever. I’ve heard so many otherwise seemingly intelligent adults claim that they wish they could go back in time and be a kid again, and that level of delusional nostalgia blows my mind.
For starters, how can they not appreciate this? When I was a kid, I thought being a grown-up would be completely awesome. And I was correct. Spare me your whining about jobs, bosses, bills, and taxes. To me, it all seems like a fair trade. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize. All you have to do is manage to achieve a baseline level of functional adulthood. Provide for yourself, and cooperate with the rest of society. That’s it. And in exchange for that, there are cars. And meals in restaurants. Vacations. Pets that you get to name. Relationships with people who actually choose you. Making your own decisions. Taking naps in your own living room on a couch you paid for. And reading whatever books you like, dammit.
Secondly, and more importantly, childhood blows. Yes, adulthood involves chores, but I remember having chores as a kid. Yes, adults have problems. But I had just as many problems when I was a kid, compounded by no control over my own life and thus zero ability to solve them. You could never in a million years convince me to go back to that. And that’s why it’s so uncomfortable when a piece of art can truly make me see life again through younger eyes with all the tiny injustices and huge misunderstandings. And that’s TWWB.
The first half-hour of TWWB is cringe-worthy. I literally watched some parts through my fingers like it was a horror movie. Because isn’t that an apt descriptor for the life of a 14-year-old trapped in a beach house with his meek mom and overbearing would-be step-father? But it’s worth sticking with the film for the sweet and believably low-key transformation the main character undergoes, as portrayed by Liam James. His Duncan will never be a cool kid, but he can find his crowd. And amazing performances abound with a cast list filled with notable character actors. It’s impossible to talk about this movie without bringing up the great Sam Rockwell, but everyone contributes in their own way to a memorable experience. I’m quite fond of this movie. I seriously doubt I’ll ever re-watch it, but it’s probably going to stick with me all the same.
* The movies based on them are unwatched by me.
** You folks at home can’t see it, but I’m making a jerking-off motion with my hand. I’m allowed to do that now because I am no longer a public servant.