Phase 4 Films // 2012 // 89 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 7th, 2013
Define your moment
One of the central problems where time is concerned revolves around the fact that time is both cyclical and singular: each moment, each instance, is utterly unique and yet even the most unique moments appear to resemble other moments. This may be the coldest, or the wettest winter, but it is still winter, and recognizably so. This situation presents difficulties because we don't how unique or exemplary any particular moment will be. So many movies have been made about the fact that what appears to be a typical trip to the corner store becomes a unique trip to the corner store, thanks to a robbery, or a car accident, or giant transforming robots. This same tension animates the slightly more mundane Backwards, a film about an Olympic-class athlete who must decide between the cyclical stability of life as a coach or the unique chance to go for the gold. There's very little unique about the picture, but those looking for familiar pleasures from pretty faces will find something to appreciate.
Abi (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the screenplay) is an Olympic rower who didn't make the team, though she was chosen as an alternate. The problem is that this is the second Games in a row she's been chosen as an alternate. Rather than going through the training and tragedy of not being chosen to compete, she elects to take a job coaching at her alma mater. It's a step down from her dreams of gold, but it comes with stability and her former high school sweetheart (James Van Der Beek, The Rules of Attraction) as her boss. Slowly, Abi must learn to adjust to her new life.
Backwards emerges out of the 2012 Olympic Games, which no doubt motivated both screenwriter/producer/star Sarah Megan Thomas as well as her financial backers. Along the way, someone made the decision to reach the broadest audience possible with the film, turning Backwards into a by-the-numbers family drama of sports-fueled redemption. That's the film's blessing, and its curse.
There are countless films like Backwards whose covers grace the "Watch Instantly" lists on your favorite streaming service. They're all there because the formula works. This has the distinction of being one of the few about rowing, as opposed to the more numerous football/baseball/soccer flicks out there. That alone sets Backwards apart from the crowd. The film is also perfectly aimed at the family audience. It's PG-rated due to "mild language," and even a scene featuring a "girls night out" is tame by broadcast television standards. That'll be a blessing for those looking to enjoy a sports drama without the specter of bad behavior looming over the proceedings.
Finally, the film is well-cast. This role isn't a stretch for Van Der Beek -- he can apparently be effortlessly charming, which he is here -- but it's nice to see him bring his charms to bear on a small project like this. The star of the show, however, is Sarah Megan Thomas. She's the perfect actress for the driven-but-confused Abi, and she brings a level of commitment to even the most saccharine moments that makes them tolerable even to the more jaded of viewers.
For those not disposed to enjoy the formulaic nature of Backwards, there's plenty not to enjoy as well. Despite the film's focus on rowing, there's little to suggest the day-to-day efforts involved in attaining and maintaining the physique and technical skills necessary for crew. The scenes of rowing themselves are not particularly exciting either. Abi is a sweet enough protagonist, but there's nothing that distinguishes here from every other family movie cliché of a main actress. Similarly, Van Der Beek is charming but similarly blank, just another guy who's attractive without any substance.
The worst thing about the picture is absolutely the fact that it sticks so close to the formula. If the film had kept all of its structure but gone in as a raunchy comedy, that might have been something. It also could have given us the nitty gritty details of the life of a rower, especially an Olympic-class athlete, anything to make this something other than a paint-by-numbers sports drama.
At least the film gets a decent DVD release. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is unspectacular but workable. Colors are well-saturated, detail is strong, and black levels are consistent. It's not a breathtaking transfer, but it represents the film appropriately. Similarly, the 5.1 surround audio track keeps dialogue audible and trots out the surrounds for a few scenes, but overall the presentation is serviceable. Extras include a short, standard making-of featurette and the film's trailer.
Backwards is a pretty standard sports drama. It's got attractive leads and a family friendly style, but there's very little substance for viewers to latch on to. It's not a bad film per se, but one that most viewers will not want to make much effort to see.
Guilty of being a bit too conventional.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Phase 4 Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated PG