Backwards, starring Sarah Megan Thomas and James Van Der Beek, is a sports drama that is far too well-intentioned for its own good, serving an ending that smacks of schmaltziness in the form of unfair self-sacrifice. Sarah Megan Thomas, who both stars and pens the film, attempts to simultaneously please rowing enthusiasts, rom-com crushers, and connoisseurs of indie filmmaking, but I get the sinking feeling she forgot to please herself in the process. The direction by Ben Hickernell is sound – those, like me, who couldn’t get enough of The Social Network’s infamous rowing scene, will certainly have their fill with Backwards. Sarah Megan Thomas is quite a great actress, and should do more work in mainstream cinema. I could see her being the Sarah Jessica Parker of her generation if placed into the right film projects. She’s got that spunk, wit, and intellect, plus she’s got an ease about her that is both relatable and comforting. Most surprising in Backwards is the terrific turn by James Van Der Beek, who not only churns out his best film performance since The Rules of Attraction, but is easily the standout character of Backwards. There are many elements of Backwards I fell in love with, but it’s the downward spiral of a journey Sarah Megan Thomas forces us to take that ultimately withheld my approval.
Fitting coming off the hot heels of this year’s London Olympics, Backwards tells the story of Abigail Brooks, a dedicated athlete who served as an alternate for her rowing team in the Olympics. Abigail wants a shot at competing alongside her team instead of simply sitting on the sidelines. She trains rigorously all hours of the day, her entire focus centered on becoming the best athlete she can be. Her coach, played by Glenn Morshower (24’s beloved Agent Piece), fully acknowledges her superiority but is worried about her endurance, especially since Abi’s not getting any younger (she’s approaching the big 3-0!). After Abi proves her readiness following a successful winning race during training, she is shocked to learn that Coach Spriklin is once again playing it safe: Abi has made the Olympic team but is yet again the alternate. Furious, Abi quits the team, frustrated over giving it her all and never being rewarded for that dedication and hard-work, and moves back home. The film then transitions to the female version of Garden State, and while on paper that sounds wonderful, you soon begin to realize how off-course Backwards is about to become.
Back home, Abi lies in bed all day, sulks around the house, and grates on her mother’s nerves. Margaret Colin, who plays Mrs. Brooks, doesn’t put much stock into sports as a means for a long career. She’s overly judgmental at times, but her understanding nature keeps her from throwing out Abi for good. Margaret Colin steals her scenes whenever she’s allowed to flaunt her indignation of Abi’s new mess of a life, but when the script demands her to course-correct her motherly habits, Colin loses her prickly charm. Part of the problem with Backwards is the way it introduces its characters as free-thinking, independent personalities, only to ditch their established ways near the end to conform to the script’s thematic purpose: love before career, youth before seniority. That’s all fine and good if you want to uphold boring traditional values and cliché narrative arcs, but I expected something a bit more unique and transformative in Backwards, and I was disappointed to find that wasn’t the case.
James Van Der Beek plays an athletic director at a local high school in Abi’s hometown, and at one time in Abi’s past the two were a happy couple. Things change, but both Megan Thomas’s script and Abi cannot seem to understand that, and so the push for a romantic reunion is all but inevitable. I will admit, the romantic in me loved the scene of the two dancing together while chaperoning a prom. It was great in that 80’s nostalgia type of way, where you’re able to dig back into your feelings from your teenage years by surrounding yourself with that same age group. Sarah Megan Thomas and James Van Der Beek exuded very real chemistry together, so although I felt frustrated with the predictability of this relationship, Van Der Beek and Thomas sold the pair’s compatibility.
After Abi gets hired by Van Der Beek’s Geoff as the new coach for the female rowing team of the high school, you start to realize how tragic Abi’s life is becoming. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share your experience as a former Olympian with up-and-coming star athletes, but why do so at the expense of your own happiness? I understand the charitable gratification, but Abi worked so hard and felt truly alive when pushing herself to the limits as an athlete, and to settle for something less than what she felt she was capable of feels like a cheat to me. I cannot speak about the ending without spoiling it, but suffice it to say, Backwards “message” did not sit well with me at all. The thematic undertone of the film is ironically very much its own title: “backwards.” I would like to see a film that spins the negative connotation that the word “selfishness” holds, because these rigid ideologies about how one must behave, especially once one reaches a certain age, are so very much what is wrong with cinematic narratives these days. This sappy, “kumbaya” approach to concluding a film delineates our significance as individuals whose greatest power to wield is “choice.” As much as I enjoyed so much of Backwards – the characters, the sleek cinematography, the narrative pacing – I could not believe Sarah Megan Thomas, being the independent spirit I’m sure she is, would choose to end her film on a rather gloomy and depressing (at least to me) note. When writing her screenplay, I wish Thomas had Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” playing in the background. Maybe then, Backwards could have refreshingly moved in the opposite direction.
Backwards opens today, September 21st, in Los Angeles and New York City. A national rollout is soon to follow, so be sure to check out this indie sports drama when it comes to a theater near you. I have some fundamental issues with it, but would love others to see it and share their thoughts.