Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Oedipal Pain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 17, 2013


Liam James, as Duncan, in this movie “The Way, Way Back” illustrates the oedipal pain of a fourteen year old boy, wanting to see his mother happy, wanting to see himself happy, yet feeling helpless and alone while his divorced mother pursues a relationship that hurts both of them. The title suggests the place in those old station wagons from the 70’s, but at the same time, hints at going back to an earlier time where a boy could love his mother, without the awareness that his mother has her own psychological and sexual needs which he, the child, cannot fulfill. The separation from his mother, that an adolescent boy goes through, was brought to light by Sigmund Freud. The boy loves his mother, but has to suffer the rejection that his mother loves a grown-up man. This separation spurs the pursuit for another relationship, and so Duncan, unconsciously, it seems like, goes hunting for a new family. This pursuit helps Duncan emerge as a unique being, which,  then gives one hope that his mother will also find a loving environment. It is a “sweet” movie in that the pain is quiet. We understand Duncan through what he does not say, more than what he does. At first, I wondered if he was socially impaired, but as the movie unfolded, he was inhibited by his negative feelings about his life, and not about a misunderstanding of people. In fact, as so often happens, while he was appearing to be awkward, he was actually being quite perceptive. There is pain and there is love, and neither one is very tidy. I liked that.

4 Responses to “Oedipal Pain”

  1. Jon said

    A very well done film indeed, and a very nice critique as well.

    I would also like to add the idea of growth, and how it was inspired by the characters of the film. The character of Owen played by Sam Rockwell inspires wonderful growth in Duncan (and others as well). Duncan is then able to inspire growth. Most notably this growth inspires his mother to become more a whole person unto herself. However, he is also able to help a neighbors’ child Peter. There is also a growth that comes from Peter’s sister. These situations are awkward, but quite real. As you concluded, “There is pain and there is love, and neither one is very tidy. I liked that.” I liked that too, quite a lot.

    • Yes, I did not mention Owen, and in his seemingly immature manner, inspires Duncan to come out of his shell and develop self-confidence. The Owen/father figure for Duncan illustrated how Duncan, with an apparently distant dad, was able, partially through luck and partially through searching, find a relationship which felt paternal. As in the oedipal situation, when the boy realizes that his mom is not a viable love interest, he must then look to his father as a source of identification. The word “father” really means a fatherly relationship, and in this, Freud lives again in this wonderful movie. Thanks, as always, for adding to this discussion.

  2. Shelly said

    Shirah, thanks very much for this “movie review.” Even though I haven’t seen the movie, you gave me some interesting food for thought in my own life, as usual.

    • Thanks, Shelly. The oedipal conflict, in isolation, seems almost absurd, but when illustrated in a great movie, book or play, then meat is put on the bones, and the theory comes to life.

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