Directed by Ben Hickernell. Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, James Van Der Beek, Margaret Colin, Glenn Morshower, Wynn Everett, Alexandra Metz, David Alan Basche, Ellis Walding, Alysia Reiner, Jenette Daley, Alexa Salame, Liz Holtan. 2012 89 minutes Rated: (for some mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 13, 2012.
Likable in spurts but too safe by a long stroke, "Backwards" would be right at home as a cable movie airing on ABC Family. As an independent theatrical release playing in art houses, its formulaic blandness probably won't go over nearly as well. One thing the film cannot be faulted for is its valiant intentions. The passion project of Sarah Megan Thomas, a relatively new face to cinema (she's only had bit parts up until now) who not only acts in the lead role, but also produced the project and penned the screenplay, "Backwards" is one of those tried-and-true sports tales about an athlete who never seems to be good enough and the miraculous second chance he or she is given. Instead of going for the Olympic gold, however, 29-year-old Abi Brooks (Sarah Megan Thomas) ultimately decides to use her talents in a different way: as the new coach of Union Academy's all-girls rowing team.
Sarah Megan Thomas is very good in "Backwards," her muscular but still feminine physique a perfect match for the role she's playing. The frustration she feels after dedicating years of her life toward a goal that doesn't look like it's ever going to happen is amply felt, even if the material surrounding her is too reserved and artificial by a half. As Geoff, the athletic director at Union who shares a past with Abi and comes to be her love interest, James Van Der Beek (2002's "The Rules of Attraction") is a welcome sight after years of trying to break free from his Dawson Leery alter-ego. He's better than his part, which isn't satisfactorily developed and mostly uses him as a sounding board of reason anchored in Abi's direction. When the two of them dance to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," the moment is ruined by its shameless derivativeness. Indeed, it's the very same set-up and song that have already been used at least twice, in 1997's "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" and 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite."
Once Abi takes over as coach, learning along the way to temper her intensity toward her girls, the clichés really mount. There's the hard-headed student who thinks she's above everyone else. There's the gradual rise in the ranks, with Union winning the Statesberry Cup Regatta. There's Abi's critical mother (Margaret Colin), who takes out her personal frustrations on her daughter. There's the last-minute injury that makes room for Abi on the Olympics team, and the tough decision she must make to accept the offer or to support her girls at Union during their championship competition in London. Even at the airport, Abi's inability to pay for a last-minute first-class ticket to the U.K. (the only available seat) is narrowly averted when she just so happens to be standing in line next to her mother's well-off new boyfriend, the shockingly generous and down-to-earth Cox (David Alan Basche). "Backwards" sends out a positive message that there are plenty of ways to win in life beyond the straightest path, and that's lovely, but the film itself is scattershot and ceaselessly vanilla. It might have been made as an independent feature film, but the finished product practically cries out for a less-demanding small-screen venue.