(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on September 28, 2012.)
When I think about Backwards, I feel like singing that Nina Simone song: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” Its heart is in the right place, and its intentions are, indeed, good… but when it’s executed as a film that one is supposed to either get behind or not, I fall on the latter side. Why? Its predictability, its paint-by-numbers script, a terrible lead performance, and for being another entry in what I consider “me cinema” – it’s one of those movies where the lead actor is in almost EVERY SCENE OF THE FILM. Also, in this case, she carries producing and writing credits. Maybe the term is “vanity project”, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it needs something stronger than what Sarah Megan Thomas has on display for us.
What I respect about this movie is that Thomas has laid bare a lot of what drives professional athletes to succeed – the constant workouts and dieting, the pressures put upon them by themselves and their coaches, and the sacrifices others have made for them. Thomas has written herself into the story as Abi Brooks, a 30-year-old Olympic rowing hopeful who quits after being named to the alternate spot – the same spot to which she’d been relegated four years prior. She’s worked for this her whole life; her father (seemingly deceased – it’s never really clarified, but hinted at) built her a trophy cabinet and said that he’d see an Olympic gold medal in there one day. The amount of effort she has put into rowing and being a winner is no joke – she lives it, she breathes it, she eats it, she sleeps it.
The act of quitting brings me to one of my problems with Backwards, and it’s a notion that is espoused hard and championed to the point of absurdity. How’s that old adage go? “Those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach.” Resigned to her fate, she becomes a rowing coach at her alma mater, Union High School in a suburb of Philadelphia. Specifically assigned to the two-person rowing squad consisting of Hannah (Alexandra Metz) and Susan (Meredith Apfelbaum), she starts immediately putting these high school girls through the rigorous training that she went through, encountering all manner of attitude and discipline problems. So what’s a young coach to do?
This, my friends, is where my wife and I started picking out every trope and cliché that Backwards threw at us; we also predicted the “curveball” and the ending correctly. Until this point in the movie, we were wondering how this movie could possibly be any good if it weren’t for James Van Der Beek and Margaret Colin putting forth decent performances as the side characters. Their performances felt like the only natural and good things about Backwards; the rest is out of every single inspirational/educational comedy in the last twenty years. It would be palatable if the movie had charm; instead, we get shot after shot of Thomas acting like a reality-show drama queen, which really turned me off to whatever the movie was trying to say. Don’t get me wrong, I think the film’s message of “put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything” is still valid. Yet the delivery system of said message was a bit flawed.
Van Der Beek, most known as “The Dawson” (as Jay puts it in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) from “Dawson’s Creek”, is sorely underused here; his restrained performance as Geoff, a former love interest of Abi’s and now her athletic director boss, makes me wonder why there aren’t more roles out there for him. Geoff is the easygoing balm that this movie needs, as the rest of the characters seem to be straight out of the next cast of “The Bachelorette.” Colin does her best as the never-without-a-glass-of-wine-in-her-hand mother; her histrionics work to a certain degree, as she’s fed up with how Abi’s career has gone nowhere. Metz plays Hannah as a surly girl who doesn’t need to be told how to do things, and yet her by-the-book character transition is as forced as someone trying furiously to fit a square peg into a triangular hole – it comes out of nowhere, and that’s mostly the script’s fault. It seems like Thomas was too busy writing herself as the victim of all these supposed injustices in her life that she forgot to actually care about the other characters. At varying times in the movie, everyone’s out to get her or angry with her, to the point where you wonder just how many obstacles can one truly stand. While Abi’s grit displayed in overcoming these obstacles is admirable, the same cannot be said about the movie itself.