Film Analysis: The Way Way Back

Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash enrich this heart-warming, coming-of-age story through  symbolic and meaningful choices mainly made in movie title, lighting and wardrobe. There were also a few meaningful choices in color scheme and location. All these mechanisms are used to evoke a deep empathy in the viewer for the movie’s protagonist. These mechanisms also aid in, foreshadowing events to come and subtly suggesting the evolution or emotions of certain characters.

The movie’s symbolic choices begin with the title as it seems to subtly refer to the protagonist, Duncan. In the beginning we see his mother, Pam, and her imperious boyfriend, Trent, sitting in the front seat of Trent’s old station wagon vehicle. Lying down in the back seat is Trent’s stuck-up daughter Katy and sitting way way back in the utmost back-seat is Duncan, the center of the movies’ attention.  Duncan’s position in the back gives insight into the reason of the movie’s title however I believe the title refers not only to Duncan but also to viewers.This is because we all have a “way way back moment,” or in other words an instant in our lives that kick starts the journey to finding ourselves. Everybody has to find themselves at sometime point and piece together the puzzle that forms their identity. We are not born searching for ourselves but eventually start to gather tiny chunks of life experience that build up who we are over time. This movie is the story of Duncan achieving that first puzzle chunk that will eventually form his whole identity and we can all relate to him. The movie is called The Way Way Back because we see ourselves coming-into-age as we watch Duncan.

The director’s lighting strategies help to make Duncan and his coming-of-age story relatable and sometimes they hint at hidden emotions or foreshadow events to come. An example of making Duncan more relatable or easy to empathize with is in the board game scene. We see the lighting has transitioned into dim, gloomy grey lights as  things take a negative turn in Duncan’s home life. There, the lighting is subconsciously setting the same mood in the viewer as what Duncan is feeling to evoke more empathy. The lighting is also foretelling in scenes like the one where Owen winks at Duncan at the intersection. The lighting on Duncan is dark and dim because he is sad, but when the cameras switch to Owen, the light on him is bright, golden, shiny sun rays. This lighting suggests that Owen is going to be an outgoing, happy person, which he definitely turns out to be. Another example of when the lighting is foreshadowing is at the dinner with Kip and Joan. Pam allows Duncan leave and the camera lingers at the dinner table before following him. In those seconds where the camera lingers at the table, the luminescent lights pour down on everyone at the table, giving them an almost angelic glow. Pam, however, is positioned further away from the table so that her face is darker. In retrospect the viewer realizes that this was hinting at the unhappiness Pam felt in her heart while everyone enjoyed themselves. While the rest of the dinner guests were having a heavenly night, Pam was suffering through an internal hell of emotions and this is why the lights did not shine on her. Through these examples we see that the  lighting in this movie was used to enhance the viewer’s’ empathy or subtly send messages about characters.

The outfits and makeup of the characters are also wisely chosen to represent the personality and evolution of characters. For example, Betty has a very loud, open, unfiltered personality and wears matching low cut shirts and heavy, neon makeup to show it. When Owen starts acting like the father-figure that Duncan so desperately needs in his life, we see his outfits start to consist of mainly white like an angel’s outfit might. Could this be the directors subtly suggesting that Owen has become Duncan’s guardian angel or saving grace? After all her does give Duncan the blessings of father-ship and friendship which Duncan has sought for years. An example of wardrobe showing an evolution in character is Trent’s misguided teen daughter. Katy wears unbelievably short skirts and bikini tops with beer bottles as her accessories. We see evolution in her character however when towards the end she wears more conservative clothing and gives up time with her rebel friends to bond with her family. Another evolutionary character is Duncan as in the beginning his makeup is pale and he sports red bags under his eyes. At the party, towards the end, we see him looking healthy, tan and confident. This shows the progress self-esteem and identity that has occurred in his character as he is no longer sleep-deprived and miserable. The directors used wardrobe and makeup to show the personality and dynamics of characters.


There were also meaningful choices made in color scheme and location. For example in the scene where Duncan is upset because he has realized that his biological father no longer wants him, the colors are suddenly very dark blue. This is yet another example of the directors trying to evoke empathy through subtle choices. I believe that the summer setting can also reinforce extra feelings of empathy because summer break is a time when several people gather their “way way back moments.” The escaping from school or work and traveling that occurs during summer causes many people to try new things and discover more about themselves. This could cause them to relate more when watching Duncan find himself. I also appreciate their choice to film this movie in a summer setting. Had they chosen to make this film during September and in a school setting, or even just back in Duncan’s hometown, this film would have become a cliché. It is the fact that Duncan can not fit in with his own family and is starting fresh in a new town for summer break that makes this movies authentic and refreshing.

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