Whereas Elizabeth Gilbert managed to eat-pray-love her way to enlightenment, Martin Sheen got there by walking. After Sheen lobbied son Emilio Estevez to make a film along Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the “Bobby” director hatched “The Way,” about a play-it-safe doctor who fulfills his world-traveling son’s last wish by spreading his ashes along the scenic 400-kilometer hike. Although a documentary of the Estevez’s father-son trek would have proven no less moving than this emotionally contrived dramatic alternative, spiritually minded auds will enthusiastically embrace the soul-cleansing experience, sparking talkshows, tourism and the sort of sleeper phenom Hollywood’s always looking to bottle.
Judging by the standing ovation the film received at its Toronto fest premiere, “The Way” represents exactly the type of chicken-soup project that inspires once-a-year ticketbuyers to leave their homes and seek out a good movie — the sort without sex, drugs or swearing. Bring an Oprah-like endorsement onboard, and they’ve got it made.
The story opens in Ventura, Calif., where conservative optometrist Tom Avery (Sheen) comfortably enjoys the life he’s chosen for himself. But as his son Daniel (Estevez) reminds him in flashback, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.” In a series of memories spread across the first act of the film, Tom and his son clash gently as the youth (technically, in his 40s) decides to ditch grad school and see the world (“The eyes are the most important organ in the body,” Tom would agree).
Then tragedy strikes, quite literally interrupting Tom’s country-club existence when the doctor receives a call from France explaining that his son was killed during a storm, just one stop into his pilgrimage along the historic path to the Cathedral de Santiago. Tom flies to France to identify the body and, in a rare display of spontaneity, decides to honor Daniel’s memory by doing the walk himself.
Sheen’s role will seem familiar to those aware of the roster of distinguished older men he’s played over the past decade, but is actually quite different from the actor’s activism-oriented personality. The beauty of his performance comes in its subtlety — the way the character appears to be constantly holding back his emotions (except for one drunken outburst in which all his prejudices pour out). As he sets out on the Camino, Tom is surly toward his fellow travelers, nonplussed about the conditions and oblivious to the beauty around him, completely focused on reaching his destination.
Estevez, by contrast, appreciates the journey (not only when in character, but also as the film’s writer-director), savoring the sights and textures en route. Tom carries his son’s cremated remains, and whenever the crew reaches a site worth lingering, Estevez has the character stop to spread a handful of ashes — each time triggering another wave of emotional kinship with the audience. To deliver still more poignancy to the grieving process, Tom repeatedly glimpses what looks like Daniel (must be the clouds in his eyes).
A loner at heart — and a widower to boot — Tom can’t help but share his journey with three other pilgrims: an affable Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen) torn between trying to lose weight and sampling all the cuisine en route; an emotionally damaged Canadian woman (Deborah Karen Unger, whose weathered plastic surgery may or may not be part of her character); and a blocked Irish writer (James Nesbitt) who attempts to record Tom’s touching story. These troupers might have lent themselves nicely to a “Canterbury Tales”-style approach, allowing Estevez to delve into their various backstories, but the director prefers to accentuate mood over character, stacking montages two and three deep, to full-length songs from such adult contemporary icons as James Taylor, David Gray and Alanis Morissette, all connected by Tyler Bates’ New Age-y score.
He also keeps the relationship between Tom and Daniel relatively generic and polite for maximum relatability, even though things often must have gotten contentious between this inflexible old Republican and his liberal-minded son. As a result, the writing feels flat, though not without humor or moments of genuine, unexpected poignancy, as in a scene featuring a young thief (Omar Munoz) and his gypsy father (Antonio Gil).
While the film itself isn’t particularly introspective, it certainly encourages auds to dig deep into themselves — precisely the quality (coupled with gorgeous images that could be improved only by widescreen lensing) that should make “The Way” so powerful for people looking to get from the movies what countless others have by walking the Camino. Even more powerful is the story behind the story, which allowed the Estevez family to explore their cultural and religious heritage (Spain and Catholicism), with father and son accomplishing this mystic experience together.