Ben Hickernell, director of the deeply felt rookie feature Lebanon, PA, is back with his sophomore film, Backwards. It shares a theme with his debut. Namely, that the best way for one facing 30 to resolve his/her existential panic is to help an adolescent overcome hers. It's a pleasant, but not especially dramatic, story about giving up your dream and hatching a new one.
Backwards is set principally in Philadelphia, mostly at the Vesper Boat Club. The film, written by and starring Sarah Megan Thomas, herself a former rower and now an actress, centers on Abi, a quasi-Olympian. At 22 and 26, Abi watched from the sidelines as a Team USA alternate. Will she make the cut this time, or get cut?
When she hears the news that she's three times an alternate, does Abi make like the raisin in the sun? No. Hickernell is too low-key a director and Thomas too low-pressure an actress for Abi to explode.
Instead, she goes into a funk, moves back home with her mother (Margaret Colin), and broods. Where do you shift your gaze when your eyes are no longer on the prize?
Abi asks her former beau, Geoff (James van der Beek), for a job as the rowing coach at the prep school where he teaches. This is both a good and bad thing for the movie. Van der Beek knows how to act for the camera. Thomas, a stage actress, is sympathetic but unemphatic. In their scenes together, he emerges and she blurs.
There are many scenic shots of sculls on the Schuylkill, a lovely sequence involving Thomas Eakins' paintings of rowers on the Schuylkill at the Museum of Art - one of the few institutions in the world where you can see the works of a master and walk outside and see the artist's great motif - and a general pleasantness. Finally, Backwards - its title referring to the wisdom that life is lived forward but understood backward - has no forward propulsion.