Emilio Estevez wrote, directed and took a supporting role in The Way, an easygoing road picture starring his father, Martin Sheen, that plays right into Sheen's wheelhouse.
The "road" in this case is the Camino de Santiago, the famed Catholic pilgrim's path from France into Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Estevez has plopped his dad on this epic hike in a story of a father taking one last shot at getting to know his son and making a test of his own physical condition and his faith.
Sheen plays Tom, a successful, widowed eye doctor who hasn't seen much of his grad student-turned-mystic traveler son, Daniel (Estevez). Daniel's last call said something about this hike he was going to take in Europe. But the next call about Daniel isn't from him. He has died on "El Camino de Santiago," "the way (road) of St. James." Tom has the unhappy task of going to France to collect his child's body.
That's where the flashbacks start, as Tom sees visions of Daniel, remembers their conversations. "Don't judge this," the son pleads, about his traveling. "Don't judge me."
And France is where Tom starts to meet the interesting people connected with this road. The Catholic French cop, played by the marvelous Tchéky Karyo, explains what the journey means to the faithful and to those in physical or spiritual crisis. A grieving Tom decides, on a whim, to take Daniel's backpack and make the journey for him, scattering his ashes at various gorgeous spots he passes.
"It will take over two months," Karyo's cop warns.
"Then I'd better get started."
He meets an overweight Dutch party animal (Yorick van Wageningen), an Irish blowhard suffering from writer's block (James Nesbitt) and a chain-smoking Canadian (Debra Kara Unger) who can't open her mouth without being rude. Tom is stuck walking with them for much of his trip, determined to keep the reasons for his hike to himself, determined to stay on task.
"Doesn't this guy ever stop to smell the flowers?" the Canadian, Sarah, wants to know.
They stay in hostels, inns and barracks. They sample the cuisine, see the gorgeous countryside, and run into loopy eccentrics, proud Gypsies and a pious priest (veteran character actor Matt Clark).
Truth be told, this movie's ambitions are small and its characters are archetypes, for the most part, like modern versions of the people in The Canterbury Tales or the crew from The Wizard of Oz, which Estevez has called an inspiration for the film.
The deep thoughts expressed here play like Irish toasts or Dr. Phil aphorisms.
"You don't choose your life, Dad," Daniel lectured his father. "You live one."
But The Way makes for a warm, engaging blend of charm and travelogue. It's a plucky film that covers a lot of ground and uncovers this wonderful, ancient ritual that people of many faiths and from all walks of life take on.
Estevez and Sheen pull off a rare thing. They make us consider the reasons we might want to walk "The Way," and in this warm and pretty movie, they make us want to do it.