Review of Backwards

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When a fiercely competitive 30 year old rower fails to make the Olympic boat for the second time, she takes a coaching job at a school but struggles to adjust to life off the race course.
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Movie Reviews: "Backwards"

-- Rating: PG (mild language)
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2012
Directed by: Ben Hickernell
Genre: Romance/Sport

"Backwards" is a feel-good story about an Olympic rower alternate who returns home to coach rowing at her former high school. The title of film refers to the fact that rowers face backward while rowing, but it also alludes to the main character's life progression as she decides to live with her mother and rekindles a romance with her former high-school boyfriend.

At the beginning of the film, Abi Brooks is teetering on the edge of 30 but has just been selected as an alternate for the Olympics for the third time. Unwilling to further sacrifice her life for an Olympic dream that will never fully be realized, she returns home to live with her mother and asks her ex-boyfriend for a job teaching rowing at the local high school. Once she begins coaching, Abi channels her love of the sport into helping two promising teen rowers on the team.

Sarah Megan Thomas, a former professional rower who also wrote the film's script, plays the lead role. The film is clearly written to be a star vehicle for her, but Thomas lacks the acting skill to shine as Abi Brooks. As a former rower, Thomas clearly has the body type and athletic looks to play Abi. However, without a strong script to help her, Thomas cannot clearly project the emotional depth required to make Abi compelling to watch.

James Van Der Beek, who plays Abi's high school boyfriend and new boss, delivers the best performance of the film. He is incredibly natural as Geoff, the school's athletic director, and manages to create a believable character out of a bland cliché. Van Der Beek also manages to generate some chemistry with Thomas's Abi, but he also clearly outshines her in their scenes together.

Meredith Apfelbaum and Alexandra Metz both give solid performances as the two promising rowers on the high school team. Margaret Colin also delivers a fine performance as Abi's mother, whose prickly demeanor causes some of the conflict within the film.

Director Ben Hickernel helms this film, but he relies too much on montages to propel the story. The film is also seriously hampered by its obviously shoestring budget; the prom scene set, for example, does not look believable on film. The worst directorial misstep, which may also be the fault of the script, is Hickernel's treatment of the sport of rowing. Despite the passion for rowing that many of the characters share, the sport seems somewhat dull when viewed through Hickernel's lens. Even the details Thomas includes about rowing, which clearly come from her own experience, fail to show the audience why it is such a compelling sport.

The largest problems with "Backwards" can be traced to its lackluster script. As the screenwriter, Thomas stated that she intended to write a mainstream film. Unfortunately, Thomas relies on a combination of a cliché plot and poorly developed characters to create her story. The only somewhat unexpected plot point occurs in the third act, when Abi is offered a chance at a possible comeback. The resolution of this situation is possibly the best, and most honest, part of the film. However, in order for this resolution to occur, all of the characters must act in uncharacteristically selfish ways.

Thomas also introduces several subplots into the script, including conflict between the main character and her parents. Abi's father is dead at the beginning of the film, but Abi still feels that making the Olympic team would fulfill her father's dreams as well as her own. Abi's relationship with her mother is a bit more complicated. Mrs. Brooks is clearly worried about her daughter, but she expresses her concern through a mixture of snark and tough love. These conflicts are resolved exactly as the viewer would expect.

Thomas also misses several opportunities to explore the human drama inherent in her script. Abi returns to her hometown to mope, but there is little exploration into how Abi feels about these changes. Abi acquaints herself with the pleasures of the occasional drink and a late bedtime; opportunities for insight into the emotional toll of trading an old dream for a new dream are passed up.

Fans of the genre who enjoy watching the inspirational coach get inspired by her students should make time to see "Backwards." Those who have followed James Van Der Beek's career after "Dawson's Creek" may also enjoy watching him deliver a great performance in this film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars