'The Way': A heartbroken dad's sentimental journey

The Way is a road movie - but no car, the hero is hoofing it - and it's a quest movie, a movie about self-discovery. Martin Sheen, feisty and formidable as ever, stars as a set-in-his-ways Southern California eye doctor called to France to reclaim the body of his grown son, who died in a fall.

Emilio Estevez, Sheen's real-life spawn - not to mention The Way's writer and director - is that son, a restless soul and everything his father is not. He had been in the Pyrenees, hiking the storied Camino de Santiago - the well-trod pilgrims' path between France and Spain - when he was trapped in bad weather.

Sheen's Tom is on a golf course in Ventura when his cellphone rings. It's a policeman in southwest France. "Daniel is dead."

A heartfelt project, scrappy and engaging, The Way has its way with audiences despite, not because of, its sentimental excess. At first, Tom plans only to collect Daniel's belongings and return home. But as he studies his son's journals, and the photos stored in his camera, he does something unexpected, uncharacteristic: Tom decides to complete the trek Daniel had started, taking Daniel's backpack and the canister of his ashes. With a guidebook, a map, and sorrow in his heart, Tom embarks on his journey.

And then he meets the Dutch stoner (Yorick van Wageningen), the sad-eyed, acerbic Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and the Irish travel writer (James Nesbitt) who become his companions. It's The Wizard of Oz, in a sense, with the wayward protagonist accompanied by a trio of deeply flawed, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic mugs.

The Camino de Santiago: their yellow brick road.

This is Estevez's fifth time directing (he's done a fair amount of episodic TV, too) and he gets wonderful stuff out of his pop - indrawn and brooding at first, and then raging, and defiant, and a little wacky, too.

At an inn, Tom has too much wine - too, too much. A sloppy drunk, belligerent and combative, he's carted off by the local cops to spend the night in jail. It's a familiar image, although the context is new: Martin Sheen arrested, but not for some activist cause, just for having a broken heart.

The Way is less successful when it comes to the backstories of Tom's respective sidekicks. Unger's Sarah, a bitter divorcée, reveals her painful history of spousal abuse, her aborted child, as they march across the beautiful Spanish countryside. Too much information. Joost has an eating disorder - he cannot say no to food - nor can he keep a secret. And Jack, the jaunty Dubliner, had dreams of writing a great novel - instead, he's hacking away for travel mags and facing the demon of writer's block.

But never mind the screenplay's shortcomings - the actors find something genuine in the material, and the rapport among these strangers-turned-friends feels genuine.

The mountains and farm country, the dusty, sun-burnished hills, the sleepy villages and grand old cathedrals, look pretty authentic, too.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

The Way

Directed by Emilio Estevez. With Joaquim de Almeida, Deborah Kara Unger, Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, James Nesbitt. Distributed by Icon Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hours, 55 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some them atic elements, drug use and smoking).