Competitive rowing is an exciting sport, and if executed properly — the electrifying race sequence in David Fincher's “The Social Network” springs to mind — that tension and athleticism translates beautifully to the screen. So it is a pity that the light romantic sports drama “Backwards” cannot come close to capturing the thrill of its subject or the emotional investment of its participants.
Abi Brooks (Sarah Megan Thomas, who wrote the screenplay based in part on her experience as a rower) has spent a dozen years chasing a position on the U.S. Olympic rowing team, but reality is not squaring with her dreams. Closing in on 30, Abi is still living in her childhood bedroom in Philadelphia, and her mother (the valuable but underutilized Margaret Colin) is trying get Abi to move on and get a real job.
But Abi's monomania is not paying off in the ways she would like. When she only earns an alternate spot on the team, Abi changes course. She accepts an assistant coaching position at a local high school, where her boss is Geoff (James Van Der Beek), the ex-boyfriend whose affections were a casualty of Abi's ambition. As expected, Abi experiences difficulty working as a mentor instead of being the competitor, and the athletes initially resist her approach, but Abi eventually finds her rhythm and finds there might still be something between her and Geoff.
Thomas brings an insider's knowledge to the technical discussions and depictions in her first screenplay, but her performance is one-dimensionally earnest and “Backwards” lacks forward momentum, wasting time with conflicts that easily resolve themselves within minutes. Director Ben Hickernell (“Lebanon, Pa.”), knows how to shoot his hometown and captures the lushness of the outer neighborhoods, but the film is skimming over the top of its potential.
Those who will attend the Oklahoma Regatta Festival this weekend will experience the true excitement of this sport firsthand, something “Backwards” never truly captures. There is a “Breaking Away”-level drama to be made about rowing, but “Backwards” barely gets its oars in the water.
— George Lang
Starring: Sarah Megan Thomas, James Van Der Beek, Margaret Colin. (Mild language)