Weak character sinks this ship
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, September 28, 2012
The sports movie genre is generally a safe bet for family-friendly entertainment. Whether the film features rackets, bats or boxing gloves, its wholesome message touts the benefits of hard work, and a little dose of suspense is practically guaranteed as the audience awaits that final match point, home run or TKO. Then again, the outcome isn’t all that important. Win or lose, it’s about how the likeable main character played the game.
Of course, that all hinges on an appealing protagonist, which happens to be one thing conspicuously absent from “Backwards,” a fairly straightforward sports drama about rowing, starring writer-producer Sarah Megan Thomas.
Her character Abi Brooks is a 29-year-old rower who has been gunning for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for years. When she finds out she has been relegated to the status of alternate for the second time, she tearfully begs her coach to reconsider before quitting the team and moving home to live with her mother.
Rudy she is not.
In a stroke of luck, Abi’s hometown promises not only an open position for a crew coach at her alma mater, but also a love interest in the form of her high school sweetheart, Geoff (James Van Der Beek). Abi has a learning curve to contend with when it comes to coaching, especially given one headstrong pupil, and a contentious relationship with her mother makes home life a bit of a bummer. But overall, things progress how you might expect: an edifying message, a little bit of nail biting and an ending worth celebrating. Moreover, the direction is often quite nice, and Ben Hickernell captures the elegance of oars slicing through water, not to mention the strain of race day.
The biggest problem, then, is the characters who populate the film. For the most part, they’re one-dimensional caricatures. Geoff’s current girlfriend, Beth (Liz Holtan), is the uber-stereotype of girly-girl serving as a foil to Abi’s sporty striver. It’s a wonder she doesn’t show up on screen wearing a pink bedazzled tiara. Meanwhile, a businessman named Cox, who drops by for dinner at mom’s house, personifies the oppressive corporate world. Played by David Alan Basche, Cox is glued to his BlackBerry, takes calls during meals, seems to be a bit of a wine snob and insists on being called “Coxy.”
The main characters don’t fair much better. Abi can’t park a car, doesn’t know her dress size and likes to eat Tootsie Rolls by the dozen, factoids that feel almost intentionally inserted to give her character some depth or quirkiness. But they don’t make her a more believable or enjoyable person. She’s a hard worker, sure, but she doesn’t seem like much more than that.
While Abi’s unorthodox approach to coaching and almost suicidal training regimens should be the most memorable scenes of the film, another persistent image comes to mind instead: Abi eating dinner while sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter, her shoes kissing granite.
Her mother, played by Margaret Colin, appears understandably exasperated by this scenario, but she has only herself to blame, because what mother lets her daughter reach 30 without the knowledge that sneakers have no place on counters? It’s a fleeting moment, but it speaks to Abi’s oblivious selfishness, which she wears like a badge until, miraculously, she doesn’t.
Colin, to her credit, makes the most of her role as the maternal voice of reason. But her ability to act, as well as Van Der Beek’s, only emphasizes that Thomas is a bit of a novice on screen. Her timing feels off and her emotions stilted, although part of that could be the overly expository dialogue, with lines such as, “Eat, sleep, row. In the life of a competitive rower, it’s all about focus. Focus or you won’t make it.”
That quote gets to the root of the problem with “Backwards,” which does a much better job portraying athletics than people. The best sports movies are about more than sports, because the characters are worth more than the sum of their medals.
Contains nothing objectionable.