Road movies, where characters turn external travels into journeys of internal self-discovery, are common enough. But aside from La Strada and a handful of modern post-apocalyptic films, it’s rare to see road-movie characters walking every step of the path. Nonetheless, that’s how it works on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an 800-kilometer traditional pilgrimage route across Spain that annually draws tens of thousands of travelers from around the world. And that’s how it works in The Way, the latest indie film to team writer-director Emilio Estevez and his father, Martin Sheen. In many ways a cut-and-dried, by-the-numbers road picture, The Way puts Sheen on the Camino for a life-changing journey, but over the course of the trip, the film changes as much as he does.
The Way opens with repressed fuddy-duddy Sheen learning that his adventurous adult son (Estevez, appearing in brief flashbacks) has died in the French Pyrenees, mere steps into his Camino journey. When Sheen arrives to retrieve the body, he impulsively undertakes the Camino trek himself, wearing his son’s gear and carrying his ashes to distribute along the way. As he transitions from stone-faced mourner to cranky fish-out-of-water among a series of pilgrims similarly traveling to escape their problems, the film goes from an excess of maudlin to an excess of cute: For a while in the early going, it sees foreigners uniformly as sweet, simple, open-handed people ready to dispense life lessons to cynical, serious Americans. Particularly guilty: Yorick van Wageningen as a hearty, life-loving Dutchman who undertakes the Camino to lose weight, but comedically fixates on food at every opportunity along the route.
But once The Way gets beyond the obvious setup, it gradually broadens into something more charming and appealing than a basic moral fable about the importance of seeking new horizons. Sheen’s initially unwelcome new companions—van Wageningen, writer’s-blocked Irish author James Nesbitt, and aggressively caustic chain-smoker Deborah Kara Unger—develop backstories, personalities, and agency. And what initially seemed like a rote uplift movie deepens into a more sincere, earnest look at a group of people whose issues and idiosyncrasies run deep enough that they can’t be wiped clean with a simple happily-ever-after moment at the end of a trip. Essentially, The Way starts out as Eat Pray Love and takes a long, surprising trip toward becoming David Lynch’s The Straight Story. And that’s a longer trip than a mere monthlong trek across Spain.