For the past six weeks, the duo have been traveling the country — most often on a bus emblazoned with an advertisement for their new movie, “The Way” — in the hopes that a story-driven, spiritually themed movie with no special effects or marketing gimmicks can connect with audiences.
Written and directed by Estevez, “The Way” stars Sheen as Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist whose son Daniel (Estevez) dies in a freak storm just as he’s beginning to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the centuries-old pilgrimage route from France to northern Spain that has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
When the grieving, un-devout Tom travels to France to pick up his son’s remains, he impulsively decides to finish the journey himself. As if in “The Wizard of Oz” by way of St. Christopher and Rough Guide, Tom meets three unlikely companions, each walking the path for his or her own reasons. What ensues has less to do with literal religious conversion than with inner transformation — suffused with transcendence, red wine, a controlled substance or two, and plenty of hip, sardonic humor.
Starting in August, Sheen and Estevez embarked on a pilgrimage of their own, visiting college campuses and theaters throughout the country — not as mendicants but moviemakers whose personal and professional journeys have become intertwined and irrevocably changed by the film.
For Sheen, a practicing Catholic whose father grew up near Compostela, “The Way” allowed him to realize — at least partially — his longtime goal of walking the Camino and represents something of a comeback in the kind of leading role he doesn’t get offered anymore. For Estevez, the film marked a return to his Spanish roots and the area where his son, Taylor, got married and lives. (Sheen suggested Estevez write about the Camino after visiting the area with Taylor in 2003.)
What’s more, “The Way” may prove that the enlightened, globally conscious humanism he favors can succeed in a world dominated by empty spectacle and R-rated raunch. Estevez has directed films reflecting that sensibility before, but they never found big audiences: His 1996 directorial debut, “The War at Home,” barely got a release in theaters, and “Bobby” (2006) received uneven reviews and little box office business. “I was criticized for being overly optimistic and too earnest,” Estevez says now. “But I don’t know how else to be.”
If Estevez has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Hollywood — as a teenager, he was part of the “Brat Pack” generation of actors that helped define coming-of-age films in the 1980s — his father never had one at all, at least by his lights. “We live in Los Angeles, but we’re not part of Hollywood,” he said. “I never knew how to make it happen.”