My private practice is replete with issues of divorce, helping children cope with divorce, parental alienation, postmarital dating and blended families. Single-parent homes. Various custody arrangements. Two birthdays. Two Christmas celebrations. Two vacations. And how the hell do you group photographs at ensuing weddings, bar mitzvahs and baptisms?
Maybe it’s because my parents divorced when I was 16. Maybe it’s because my three sons are obliged to bear the identity of “kids from a broken home.” And maybe it’s just because this current culture finds it as common as not for children to be raised in homes that are the product of divorce. Whatever the case, these issues are not merely the “bread and butter” of my profession; they are deeply personal to me, too.
Which is why, while watching the movie “The Way, Way Back,” I could barely control the urge to conjure a spell allowing me to magically jump into the screen and punch most of the adult characters in the head, collect the kids, take them home and adopt them all. I’m serious: This movie was a roller coaster ride of delight, laughs, tenderness, humanness … and awkward, heartbreaking pain. Finally, redemption. At the very end. Whew.
Actor Steve Carell is, strangely, the villain. In “The Way, Way Back,” Carell plays Trent, a divorced father of one daughter dating a divorced mother of one son. Like most people, I “met” Carell in NBC’s “The Office,” the movie “40-Year-old Virgin” and other comedic roles. I always enjoyed his caricatures, but who knew he could act? I mean really act. He is understatedly outstanding in this movie. So good that, should I meet him in real time, I might not ever be able to forgive him for Trent. (Similarly, it took me a long time to forgive Danny Glover for the way his character treated his wife in “The Color Purple.”)
Trent is … awful. Utterly deaf, dumb and blind to anything but his own ego images of how his life “ought to look” and constantly conscripting the mother, her son and his own daughter into service to that end. He doesn’t beat children or women, at least not with his fists. But he’s a bully, nonetheless. And the worst kind of bully! The kind who believe themselves to be erudite and wise. The kind of bully who is convinced he’s doing you a favor with his condescending, vicious criticisms, his certainty that everyone around him is lucky to benefit from his unique knowledge of how things ought to be.
And the mother … oh my. Over and over again she asks her 14-year-old son to accept the behavior of this Boyfriend Wannabee Stepfather Doofwad. Over and over she notices, then ignores the angst, the pain, the outrage, the loneliness tattooed all over the boy’s face.
She even ignores her own intuition — her own eyes and ears — regarding Trent’s shameless philandering.
Ignores it, that is, until her own son publically “outs” Trent before the entire neighborhood.
Trent bullies. Mom allows her loneliness to convince her to sacrifice crucial values. For different reasons, she’s just as hard to like as Trent.
And I think about the journey of divorced parents. And I think about how much I admire the divorced parents who are journeying well.
Trent is iconic of a divorced father who wants desperately to redeem the ideal of “family.” But, while armed with a laudable motive, he proceeds to do everything wrong. The ideal of family cannot be assigned. It must be conceived, gestated, nurtured, wooed, coaxed, invited, tended and grown.
You cannot grow a blended family by giving orders.
Pam (the mom) is iconic of a divorced mother who also seeks redemption of ideals, then adds to that the vulnerability of economics and loneliness, in no particular order. She is regressive, behaving more like a cavalier college girl than a responsible adult.
Trent and Pam make all the blended family mistakes. They introduce the children to the form of family too soon. They introduce the children to each other too soon, before a serious, credible commitment has been forged. They both presume upon rapport they have never established — not with the children or each other.
“The Way, Way Back” is a terrific, well-written, superbly cast, well-acted film. But not always easy to watch. Because what the movie depicts is too often true.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.