In their first co-directed film, The Way Way Back (2013), Nat Faxon and Jim Rash feature fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who goes on summer vacation with his newly-divorced mom (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter from a previous relationship, Steph (Zoe Levin). The movie begins as the four of them are on the way to Trent’s beach house, with Trent asking Duncan to rate himself—his personality, looks, everything—on a scale of one to ten while Duncan’s mom and Steph are asleep. Duncan’s tentative answer, six, shocks Trent, who promptly corrects him. Apparently Duncan is much more like a three.
Over the course of the summer, Duncan gets a job at a Water Wizz, a water park owned by Owen (Sam Rockwell) but operated primarily by Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph). Faxon and Rash play staff members Lewis and Roddy. Duncan befriends Owen, Caitlyn, and the rest of the staff, but also becomes friends with a girl who lives next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), on whom he develops a crush almost immediately. As the plot works itself out, it becomes clear that the film suggests a creative world that is dependent on something that looks very much like grace does in our world.
The Locus of Grace
Grace, as I take it to be, is a special kind of help God gives as a gift to a recipient, enabling that recipient to perform functions that she might not have been able to perform absent the gift. Is grace external or internal to persons? On one hand, one might think that grace’s locus must be external to persons. If there really were some force that could affect people so radically and essentially, such that they have the ability to perform tasks that they couldn’t otherwise do, wouldn’t that force have to be different in kind to us? Paul Thomas Anderson leans on this sort of account of grace in Magnolia, where—without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen it—main characters are offered the chance to become better versions of themselves only when baptized communally by a rainstorm of frogs. The grace that perfects the story’s characters has to come from outside the characters, and it must be a deus ex machina, otherwise the characters wouldn’t be able to be changed.
On the other hand, one might think that grace’s locus is internal to persons. For a person to change essentially, this account might go, her dispositions must change of her own free will. If her dispositions change aside from her free will, then she has not been changed in the way that we take grace to change persons. Then the thing that can change our dispositions without impinging on free will must be located in our will, which is to say, it must be internal to us. John Hughes goes in for this concept in many of his films. Grace presents itself to the members of The Breakfast Club in teenagers recognizing and internalizing their moral obligations to one another in the context of detention. It presents itself to Sam Baker in Sixteen Candles in her coming to terms with her family forgetting her sixteenth birthday because her sister is getting married that very weekend. And it presents itself to Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off through his realizations that his fear of his father is crippling, and that courage demands facing that fear.
The Way Way Back, like many of the recent films centering on character growth—Little Miss Sunshine and Moonrise Kingdom, in particular—doesn’t go the path of either John Hughes or Magnolia. Instead, it offers an account of transformative grace that has both internal and external loci. On the one hand, grace is different. It only comes to Duncan when he literally leaves his family and comfort zone to befriend the staff of a waterpark, who at first seem nothing like him. He grows into himself and develops the virtue of courage in performing tasks that are wholly outside his comfort zone. On the other hand, grace is similar to Duncan. It doesn’t change who Duncan is at the level of his essence. Rather, it affords him space to become a better version of himself, in part by allowing him to envision and realize the kind of person he would rather be. Moreover, and most importantly, it comes to him most directly through Owen, the park’s owner, who is crucially like Duncan in one distinctive way: both have abusive father-figures. And on this point Owen is able to offer the crucial revelation to Duncan that Trent’s abuse reflects on Trent’s person, not Duncan’s.
The Vehicle of Grace
We can also ask about another aspect of how grace comes to persons. Does it come through the mundane, or the mysterious? Here, many of the ‘80s films agree with recent releases that grace shows up in the mundane. This, I think, is an aesthetic move, but also an experientially significant one. It’s aesthetic insofar as it is meant to resonate with and exhort target audiences, playing especially on democratizing notions, which are fairly culturally pervasive. Transformation need not take place in a mysterious way, because everyone can be transformed—but not everyone experiences the mysterious. Instead, it can happen regardless of who or where one is. Whether it’s a road-trip, summer camp, or a job at a water park, people are given room to grow in a space that they might not have picked out as transformative beforehand. So grace’s vehicle is the mundane.
But an important feature of The Way Way Back is that the vehicle of transformative grace is purposefully kept mysterious. The film does an excellent job of depicting Duncan’s transformation as happening slowly, and sometimes erratically, over the course of the summer. But the really sophisticated move is having it culminate in a moment in a way that seems neither hackneyed nor inconsistent with the buildup over time. Over the course of the summer, Duncan heard stories of some legendary park patron who went down the waterslide after another patron and passed them on the way down without getting stuck. But because most of the slide is not visible from the outside, and because no one really knows whom this legend is about, no one is quite sure how the feat was accomplished. We see a failed attempt or two, and we see cynics dismiss the legend as being just a legend. But Duncan does it, and his achievement of the task is unique—even heroic.
In that moment, Duncan’s transformation is perfected, and he becomes the legend. But even as a legend, he is mysterious. All we see is that he had a running start into the slide. That aside, we don’t know when or how he passed the person sliding ahead of him. He himself refuses to reveal how it was done. The grace that perfects Duncan comes to him in a way that is, in this sense, mysterious. In fact, this mystery is a crucial insight of the film. Grace can take what is merely quotidian and make it heroic. Grace unites mundaneness and mystery.
The Effects of Grace
Grace changes the person to whom it comes. Duncan, through grace, is able to become more virtuous—in particular, more courageous. The differences between the Duncan at the beginning of the summer and him at the end are stark. He is originally afraid of—sometimes physically cringing at—Owen’s jokes. But in one of the more humorous sequences of the film, he is able to take Owen’s teasing in stride and even return it with smart comments. His public shyness is awkward to the point of the viewer’s pain, but he gets over this, too. He’s able to confront a group of park visitors on his boss’s orders to tell them that they can’t dance in the park, and then he is able to dance with them. He works up the courage to talk to his crush Susanna, and he’s able to confront Trent about his awfulness. Grace brings Duncan along, little by little, affording him the help to clear each increasingly challenging hurdle.
By now the pattern is clear. Grace helps the one to whom it comes, but it also helps those around the direct recipient. Duncan clearly loves and is compassionate towards his mother. He feels strongly that she is too good for Trent, but is also hesitant to say anything bad about him—partly out of fear, but partly because he thinks she is happy with him. But Duncan, like many (or perhaps most!) teenagers, is liable to be disrespect- ful towards his mother once in a while. He disobeys her rules regarding letting her know where he is when he goes missing, he complains about having to be on vacation with her rather than his father, and he is generally sullen when he is around her and Trent.
Trent is in the backdrop of so much that motivates Duncan’s actions—Duncan goes to Water Wizz to avoid being around his mother and Trent. Yet he is unable to confront Trent in a healthy and confident way. But grace helps him talk firmly to his mother about the worries he has about Trent, it helps Duncan to finally confront Trent about his vices and shortcomings, and it helps him to love his mother in a way that’s ultimately constructive, rather than destructive. Duncan becomes not simply a recipient of grace, but in fact a conduit of grace towards his mother. Importantly, like Duncan, she does not respond to grace fully, immediately. Instead, she must go through her own period of transformation— though for her it is considerably shorter than Duncan’s and doesn’t take place on-screen. But when the work of grace is completed in her, and she has grown and adjust- ed, she too is able to see the overriding flaws in Trent and join Duncan in the way way back of the car, presum- ably ready to leave Trent. Grace begets grace.
Does Grace Look Like This in Our World?
Thus, in Faxon and Rash’s creative world, we see a grace that is, if not paradoxical, at least dialectic. It is internal and external to persons, it unites the mundane and the mysterious, and it changes its recipients for their own sake, while at the same time changing those around the direct recipients for their own sakes. Whether these features of grace that Faxon and Rash bring out in the film resonate with the viewer undoubtedly depends on one’s worldview. The question
then, of whether grace looks anything like this in our own world, is simultaneously an objective question about the way the world is and a subjective one about how we see it. But grace is not mysterious and external simply descriptively; it is mysterious and external ontologi- cally. That is to say, Faxon and Rash offer no propositions on where they think grace comes from, or why they think it comes.
There are many advantages to this. Consider four. First, these questions are difficult to navigate, and a film might not be the best
place to go looking for answers (though, as evidenced by his film The Tree of Life, someone like Terrence Malick might disagree). Second, in avoiding ontological questions about grace, one can perhaps appeal to a broader audience to accept one’s account of grace’s phenomenology. Third, one might not believe that grace’s ontology has any useful impact on how it is experienced, rendering the ontological questions functionally irrelevant. Fourth, one might not believe that grace has an ontology. For these potential reasons, and others that I haven’t suggested, I do not fault Faxon and Rash for not taking up ontological questions regarding grace. But for me, these ontological questions do prove crucial for our understanding of grace’s phenomenology. Here is why.
I believe that the Christian tradition provides a framework for thinking of grace in a way that’s very similar to how Faxon and Rash have set it up in their creative world. Consider the Summa Theologicae and what Aquinas says concerning the cause of grace. On the one hand, God—a being who is in a wide variety of senses other to us—is alone the cause of grace (ST I-II, Q 112, Art 1). On the other hand, saving grace comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who, according to the First Council of Ephesus, is fully human and, according to Hebrews, was tempted in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15). Moreover, regardless of what we are to say about its metaphysics, it seems safe to make the modest claim that grace also commands a free-will response on the part of the recipient (ST I-II, Q 113, Art 3).
Similarly, grace is mysterious—for the Christian there is no explanation for why we are given grace as a gift except God’s love, but God’s love is itself a mystery. Nevertheless, it is, at least in some important sense, mundane. For grace sustains everything: our lives (Lamentations 3:22-3, Matthew 5:45), and thus our relationships and our culture. In this sense, it is easy to lose sight of the mystery of grace. But grace unites the mundane and the mysterious, because in sustaining the world, it affords us the opportunity to apprehend the sublime. Most importantly, it affords us the opportunity for fellowship with God.
Finally, grace comes to us personally so that we might be changed. Grace saves and sanctifies us by uniting us with Christ (Ephe- sians 2:8-10, Romans 6:5-6). But in sanctifying us, it helps us to be gracious towards those around us (ST I-II, Q 109, Art 2). It enables us to obey Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-9). Furthermore, through us, the Holy Spirit extends God’s grace towards others. While some of us come to trust Christ through an experience like Paul’s on the road to Damascus, most of us come to trust him through the faithful witness of a person whom we trust—a parent, pastor, or friend. Thus, because grace helps us and helps us help others, it generates and sustains two communal projects: culture and the church. Grace begets grace.