2.5 / 5 stars
In the spirit of this past summer’s 2012 London Games, Sarah Megan Thomas buckled down and got her screenplay about an Olympic rower made, starring in the film and even producing it. But the plucky multi-hyphenate chose a squeaky-clean approach to her project about a falling athletic star, and it sets Backwards, well, back in terms of quality: In this romantic drama, sweet and innocent equals plain and predictable. And unless you’re a hopeful teenage moviegoer, that’s a subpar equation for a feature film.
(Click on the movie poster for the large version.)
Thomas admits she made the firm decision for Backwards to be family friendly and, boy, does she succeed. There’s nary a curse word uttered and just a sip or two of alcohol ingested — during a girls’ night out, of course. That doesn’t define a movie as inauthentic or boring, of course, but it does set Thomas the screenwriter down a by-the-numbers direction she either can’t or won’t deviate from.
So, in this tale of a near-Olympic rower who becomes a high school crew coach, we get motivational moments and song-smothered montages. We get a woman trying to find her direction in life, and gentle laughs and minor redemptive moments. It’s all as expected as a Sylvester Stallone training sequence in any Rocky film whose title ends in a number.
But Backwards also retains a certain sweetness that has its charms. Most of this can be attributed to Thomas herself: She has an appealing onscreen presence without trying too hard, the type of genuine likability that should get her future roles as the smart best friend (or even the lead) in many romantic comedies. And she knows how to make the most of her look, an attractive, lithe combination of sportiness and sensuality that happens to fit this particular role well.
When Van Der Beek, certainly an experienced actor, and Thomas finally share a kiss, it feels honestly earned, the rest of the film being so traditionally lightweight and void of character pleasures — okay, save for a cute, Tootsie Roll-binge-eating sequence.
Within the storyline, Thomas misses a golden opportunity that would have fit nicely within her ABC Family tone: The chance to show us what an Olympic-caliber training regimen is really like, especially for women athletes. There are only summary hints quickly covered during the opening credits, so one would surmise Thomas and director Ben Hickernell (Lebanon, Pa.) found the action too boring or involved for the big screen. But the high school audience most likely to enjoy Backwards will also know the daily demands of a structured sports program more than most of us, and could have really dug in to some of the details.
If Sarah Megan Thomas should be credited with anything as a screenwriter and producer, it’s for not making too big a deal out of a moment, and Hickernell’s low-key direction is a nice complement. The conclusion suffers from too much fanfare — especially difficult to pay off with the film’s low budget. It’s a good reminder that we should be far more interested in Sarah Megan Thomas the actress, no matter how her film producing dreams turn out.