Toward the end of The Way, during the final leg of the 500-mile El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in northern Spain, Tom (Martin Sheen) says something that will resonate not only with this film's audience, but also with fans of the wonderful Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous.
"Write it like you saw it," he tells Jack (James Nesbitt), a struggling Irish travel writer who has been looking for an angle ever since embarking on the thousand-year-old pilgrimage route from southern France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. "Tell the truth."
It's a pivotal scene that also happens to be nearly identical to one from Crowe's coming-of-age rock drama, in which Stillwater frontman Russell Hammond implores teenage journalist William Miller to write honestly about what he has seen while on tour with the band.
Were The Way a lesser movie I might make a stink here about plagiarism or, at the very least, unoriginality on the part of writer and director Emilio Estevez. And while The Way isn't as good as Almost Famous, it's still a touching and beautifully filmed coming-of-age story—quite an unlikely achievement given that the protagonist here is nearly 70.
That it works so well is a credit to Sheen, who did his real-life-son Estevez a favor by not only agreeing to star in the film, but also delivering a wonderful performance that is sentimental without being sappy and powerful without being melodramatic. It's impossible to judge The Way without considering the family connections and subsequent benefits of that authenticity. Estevez directs his father, but he also plays Daniel, Tom's recently deceased son who we meet in flashbacks throughout the film. It's all a little meta but it also all works toward making The Way a more moving experience than I expected.
Sheen, playing a widowed eye doctor, receives news from France early on in the film that his only child Daniel has died in a hiking accident less than a day after setting out on the Camino de Santiago. These early scenes, as Tom travels to France to claim the body, are mixed with recent flashbacks and are among the film's best moments. We learn of Tom skepticism of Daniel's wanderlust ways and concern that his nearly 40-year-old son is floundering. Their tense relationship could no longer be resolved face-to-face.
As this reality settles in, Tom makes the most spontaneous decision of his measured life and decides he will hike the Camino in Daniel's honor, spreading his son's ashes along the route. It is a personal trek undertaken with a sense of mournful duty, but also one in which he will be surrounded by hundreds of fellow travelers, all of whom have their own reason for taking the historic path. This strange dichotomy—an aging solo traveler in a sea of new faces at each turn—proves to be an effective narrative device. That northern Spain is a beautiful place to film doesn't hurt either.
Tom isn't looking for company on his journey. With walking stick in hand, he plods along with his son's backpack and gear strapped over his shoulders. But it's hard to steer clear of companions on the Camino, even if you're trying to avoid them, and so despite his best efforts, Tom eventually finds himself with one, then two, and finally three hiking partners. There's a Wizard of Oz feel to The Way that would be annoyingly silly if it weren't for interesting characters with more depth than the Tin Man and Scarecrow. Here we meet Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a Dutchmen trying to lose weight, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a somber Canadian divorcee, and Jack, the Irish writer. There are surprising layers to each character revealed with superb storytelling.
Even with travel buddies in tow, Tom is reluctant to talk about his motives, or really to talk at length with anyone at all. What's most intriguing about The Way are the subtle but important ways in which his motives change throughout the 500-mile trek. The goal may be to honor a lost son, but the film is as much about a 70-year-old man discovering his own independence which makes that scene where Tom finally relents and gives Jack his blessing to write freely and honestly—after weeks of asking and telling him not to—all the more powerful.
The Way continues at the Wilma.