"A Week Away," the first faith-based film from Netflix gives teens an opportunity to explore two of the searching questions that we all face. What is my purpose? Am I worthy or good enough to be loved? Teens face these questions in an intense way as during their developmental years as they are working out just who they are and what their contribution to the world will be.
"A Week Away," also embodies the theme from this year's World Communications Day (WCD) Message from Pope Francis: Come and See: Communicating by encountering people as they are.
At the beginning of this film, we meet Will (Kevin Quinn), a juvenile delinquent whose latest escapade, even topping when he put his high school up for sale on Craig's List, is stealing a cop car. It seems like juvenile detention is his next stop. While he's sitting in front of his social worker, Mark (Ed Amatrudo), Kristen (Sherri Shepherd), a foster mom working with Mark, suggests that Will accompany her son, George (Jahbril Cook) to summer camp. Will is given the choice: juvie or camp. Of course, he chooses camp.
What he doesn't know is that Camp Aweegaway is a Christian camp and when he finds out he complains to George, "You didn't tell me this was church camp!" But when Will meets the camp director's daughter, Avery (Bailee Madison), all of a sudden spending a week at camp doesn't look so bad.
The film follows two pairs of teens: Avery and Will and George and Presley (Kat Conner Sterling), Avery's best friend.
Both Will and Avery share the experience of the death of a parent, or in Will's case, both. For Will, being an orphan has disconnected him from everyone around him and his file shows that he has been in numerous foster homes and schools, never quite able to fit with anyone. What's special about Avery is that she accepts him for who he is without judgement (although, to be fair, Will hides the truth of why he's there from her). She's also able to be vulnerable with Will and tell him her story. The more she opens up to him, the more he feels the tug at this heart to open up to her.
I think Will's desire for love and connection echoes the desire we all feel for connection but especially young people struggling to find their way in the world. Pope Francis, in the 2021 World Communications Day Message says, "we need to…spend time with people, to listen to their stories and to confront reality, which always in some way surprises us." This is the way true encounter happens. This is what Will found out once he started spending time with Avery, George, and the other kids at camp.
Realizing that this deep desire for connection and encounter is in all of us, I asked Kevin Quinn, who plays Will, how it was to play this character and what he might say to kids in situations similar to Will's. His advice: reach out to other and connect with those people who are willing to show up for you.
To the outsider, and certainly to Will, Avery seems perfect. When he jokingly says that to her, she has a strong reaction, "No, I'm not." Her struggle seems to be living up to the expectations of others, which, she admits, "is exhausting," while trying to find her own way in the world. Since the film is also a musical, this calls for a song. "Place in this World" by legendary Contemporary Christian Artist, Michael W. Smith fits seamlessly into the narrative for Avery. You can watch that clip here.
The filmmakers integrated a quote from Scripture, Jeremiah 29:11, into the dialogue of the film: "I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." With this quote, Avery encourages Will as well as herself. I asked Bailee Madison, who plays Avery, what this quote meant to her and she told me the story of how it got into the film and how special it is to her, saying, "there's something for everyone in those words."
The other "couple" in the film is George and Presley. They are Camp Aweegaway veterans and it seems that they've had a crush on each other for a few years. But the outgoing George is so nervous around Presley that he can't string three words together in her presence. As the camp veteran, George is the one who shows Will the ropes but it's Will who encourages George to come out of his shell in regards to Presley.
Presley, on the other hand, can't quite figure out why George won't speak to her. All kinds of thoughts go through her head, all of them somehow blaming herself. She shares these thoughts with her BFF, Avery, and the result is one of the most relevant songs I've heard in a long time, "Good Enough," an original song by Adam Watts. You can see the clip on YouTube here. One of my favorite lyrics of the song is, "God made you just how you should be: good enough."
This is surely a message that teens (as well as everyone else) needs to hear or be reminded of in today's society. When I asked Kat and Jahbril (who play Presley and George respectively), what they hope for the film, they both mentioned that they want people to feel accepted just as they are. Brené Brown, a researcher/storyteller who deals with topics such as vulnerability and wholeheartedness reminds us that we are "Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is."
Again, I think the Pope's WCD Message is reflected in the story of this film. Pope Francis uses St. Paul as an example of the kind of communication and encounter he's talking about: "That great communicator who was Paul of Tarsus would certainly have made use of email and social messaging. Yet it was his faith, hope and charity that impressed those of his contemporaries who heard him preach or had the good fortune to spend time with him, to see him during an assembly or in individual conversation. Watching him in action wherever he was, they saw for themselves how true and fruitful for their lives was the message of salvation that, by God's grace, he had come to preach."
George and Presley definitely learned how to open themselves up to encounter as they sought to get to know one another better. Avery's example of faith-filled, authentic living, drew Will to her as he saw in her the kind of love and connection he wanted for himself.
As David (David Koechner), Avery's Dad and the camp director, told Will, "Every once-in-a-while, everybody's just a week away from an experience that changed everything for them." An experience like the one Will and Avery, George and Presley went through was, hopefully, a starting point for them to take those initial encounters and deepen them in the future.
In this time of pandemic, being connected with others, both face-to-face (if safe and possible) and virtually is more important than ever. I would like to share with you the prayer Pope Francis offers at the end of the WCD message:
Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves,
And to set out in search of truth.
Teach us to go out and see,
teach us to listen,
not to entertain prejudices
or draw hasty conclusions.
Teach us to go where no one else will go,
to take time needed to understand,
to pay attention to the essentials
not to be distracted by the superfluous,
to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth.
Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world
and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.