Family dynamics are never clean or fixed. They are messy and complex, pulsing with a lifetime of emotions and expectations past, present, and future. The upcoming release “The Way” brims over with these sorts of familial interactions, both on film and behind the scenes. The movie tells the story of a father who leaps out of his comfort zone to fulfill the last dream of his suddenly deceased son, and who rebuilds his own life through the process. The tale is masterfully told through the performances of a real-life father-and-son duo—Martin Sheen, who stars as the father, and Emilio Estevez, who plays the son and directs his own father’s touching performance.
The film opens with a scene out of every parent’s worst nightmare: Sheen’s character, Dr. Tom Avery, receives a call informing him that his son has been killed in a freak weather accident in France. Tom flashes back to a previous conversation with his son, Daniel, right before he left for Europe. We overhear the all too believable exchange, in which the father screams at his son, “When are you going to finish your education?” to which the son retorts that he has decided to give up his PhD in favor of travelling the world.
Back in the present, the film poignantly captures the father’s awkwardness in the face of his immense loss. He does not know how to speak to people or how to react when he sees his son in a body bag. In an uncharacteristically impulsive move, Tom, a retired ophthalmologist more comfortable on a California golf course than in the wild, decides to embark on an 800-kilometer pilgrimage through Spain—on the famed Camino De Santiago trail—carrying his son’s ashes as a last gift to his son, who had hoped to complete this journey. While meeting the other pilgrims on this solitary trek, Tom rediscovers himself and the memory of Daniel, and finally comes to terms with the life of his late estranged son.
Of course, as close collaborators on “The Way,” Sheen and Estevez do not have the same type of estranged relationship as the father and son in their film. They banter together, expressing pride in each other’s skill. The elder Sheen even attributes the depth of his own performance—his character transforms from an unhappy loner on a tragic mission to the mainstay of a group of pilgrims, with a physical journey that mirrors his spiritual one—to the skill of his son. With some pride, Sheen tells how “Emilio found a way to make Tom’s journey equally a physical adventure and an inner quest.”
As for Estevez, he was determined to have his father play the leading role in the film, which he wrote and directed. “Even when we were struggling to get this movie made, there was never any question about Martin being Tom. The role was created for him and I certainly didn’t want to be on the Camino de Santiago without him,” he says. The actors’ real-world generation-spanning relationship offers a taste of what Tom finally finds on his pilgrimage—a deeper, if posthumous, bond between father and son.
Sheen and Estevez admit that they originally thought that their film would only appeal to, as they called it, “the AARP generation.” But they were delighted when test groups of younger audiences responded to both the exotic lure of the Camino trail and the emotional draw of the film’s internal redemptive quest. The lesson of a road-trip movie—that one must sometimes undertake a journey not for the sake of another person or a destination, but to find one’s self—is, they conclude, one with an appeal for all ages.
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