“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Gal 2:19).
The Christian life begins in the last way we would suspect. Depictions of this upside-down life are a rare bird, and in a time when new fare is limited, the 2013 summer flick, The Way, Way Back, serves up a double-portion.
The movie opens on a shot of fourteen-year-old Duncan, sitting in the way-back, the rear-facing seat of a wood-paneled station wagon. Duncan stares blankly as the road unfurls away from him, a fitting metaphor for his life thus far. The spell is broken, though, when the driver asks Duncan how he would rate himself on a scale of one to ten. So begins the age-old game of scorekeeping.
The driver is Trent, the would-be boyfriend to Duncan’s mother, Pam (played with full pathos by Toni Collette). Duncan gives a safe answer, six, to which Trent takes umbrage. According to Trent’s evaluation, Duncan is a three. Then, Trent proceeds to explain his assessment and offer some suggestions as to how Duncan might improve his rating.
Within ten minutes, The Way, Way Back has illustrated what many well-meaning Christians fail to grasp: Life’s commands never help anyone get any closer to God. Thankfully, The Way, Way Back also offers a depiction of where you can look when the commands of life inevitably come up short. It does so in such a cross-shaped way, although it probably goes by unnoticed at first pass. But once you stand on the other side of the cross, you will not be able to miss it.
The station wagon takes the family to Trent’s lake house for a summer getaway. Having never received anything other than the shoulds and oughts of life, Duncan seems to intuit that this trip will have nothing to offer him. Nine out of ten times, Duncan would be right, too. But, as those of us who have experienced the gospel know, the Holy Spirit loves to hit that one-out-of-million jackpot more often than is probable.
This is how the gospel always operates. It does not run by shoulds or oughts, statistical or otherwise—the gospel functions by impossible, unlikely, and ill-advised standards. In ways, places, and people, it should not. And before they reach their destination, Duncan lays eyes on one such should-not, Owen (played by Sam Rockwell). At a stoplight, Duncan looks up to see a somewhat unkempt Owen, idling in a convertible.
It is worth noting that while Trent may be driving a station wagon, it is a cool station wagon. And, while Owen may be driving a convertible, it is not a cool convertible. In fact, it is a noticeably shabby one. You get the impression Owen drives this car for no other reason than the sheer pleasure it brings him. Such is Owen.
Throughout the movie, Owen is depicted as someone absolutely unfettered by the demands of life. The cross-shaped irony is that Owen manages to accomplish so much more than everyone else with all their striving.
The Way, Way Back depicts Duncan navigating his summer between the two poles of the law (embodied by Trent) and the gospel (embodied by Owen). Trent is always ready to call Duncan to task or give him a chore. Which, unsurprisingly, sends Duncan wandering aimlessly around town to try and get away. On one such trip, Duncan has his first meaningful encounter with Owen.
At a pizzeria, Duncan spies Owen playing Pac Man. Duncan wanders over, and Owen tells him he’s having the game of his life. Duncan observes it is only the first level. At this point, Duncan is introduced to another way of scorekeeping altogether by not counting at all.
The gospel fires up within us the gratitude, joy, and love to pull off what the law never could get us to do.
This way of being is fully delivered to Duncan in one of the movie’s final scenes. As the trip is abruptly cut short, Duncan runs off to say one last goodbye at the waterpark where Owen gave him a job. Trent and Pam chase down Duncan, but Duncan makes it to the waterpark before they can reach him. When Trent tries to haul Duncan away, Owen literally puts himself between Duncan and Trent.
This scene depicts so well the two-fold way the gospel accomplishes everything the law cannot. First, the gospel ends the long reach of the law. Second, in so doing, the gospel fires up within us the gratitude, joy, and love to pull off what the law never could get us to do. As Luther said in the Heidelberg Disputation, “The law says, Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “Believe in this,” and everything is already done.”
Owen exemplifies this sort of freedom throughout the film. He is an inveterate slacker. Yet, he cannot be stopped from being a godsend to character after character.
Although Owen is a manager at a lackluster water park that offers him no future, he goes about conferring future after future upon anyone who lands under his compassionate regard.
It is not just Duncan who is on the receiving end of this largesse. There are three boys who always seem to be huddling around Owen’s ankles. But instead of telling the boys to get lost, Owen cannot help but engage and tease the boys. Not that it is all fun and games for Owen, though. When his love interest has had a little too much of his goofing off, Owen does not mount any self-righteousness defense. Instead, he just turns up early the next day to help get work done.
We always tell ourselves the only way people are going to get on the ball is through shoulds and oughts. But what The Way, Way Back depicts so well is the upside-down wisdom of the cross: that the way we really get going is when the law comes to an end, and we stand on the receiving end of an unexpected and unearned gift.
We always tell ourselves the only way people are going to get on the ball is through shoulds and oughts.
A case in point is Pam. Throughout the movie, it has been clear Pam has her doubts about Trent. In fact, in a moving scene, she explains to Duncan why she has ignored those doubts. (Hint, it has everything to do with the law.) But when she and Trent chase Duncan to the water park, she sees signs of everything Owen has bestowed on Duncan, and what it has done for Duncan. When Owen puts himself between Trent and Duncan, she also gets a glimpse of everything the law can’t do.
Eventually, they all get back in the car to drive home in awkward silence. But Pam cannot ignore what she has seen. And it leads her to where the cross always does, not up, but down. She climbs to ‘the way, way back’ of the station wagon to sit with Duncan. The music soars, and the movie closes as it began. Only this time, Duncan is not alone.
This is how the Christian life always works, not by clawing our way to the front, but climbing into the way-back among the exhaust fumes and spare tires, back to where God meets us in the cross.
AsThe Way, Way Back knows so well, the only way we will ever be free enough to take up such an enterprise is not to measure up but to completely die to the whole enterprise. Once that has happened, though, we will finally be free enough to let our corpse be the welcome mat to our neighbor’s empty tomb.