Borrowing from "The Wizard of Oz," Emilio Estevez sets a ragtag quartet of seekers on a long trek in his new film, "The Way." Their Yellow Brick Road is the Way of St. James, or El Camino de Santiago, one of Western Europe's most famous Christian pilgrimage routes.
The gentle drama offers an intriguing look at the contemporary version of an ancient ritual, and is anchored by the on-screen work of the writer-director's father, Martin Sheen. But Estevez doesn't push far enough, opting to focus on generic lessons in camaraderie and the primacy of the moment.
Sheen is the story's Dorothy, so to speak: a Ventura ophthalmologist who finds himself a long way from home. His Tom Avery has traveled to the French Pyrenees to collect the remains of his son (Estevez in flashbacks), killed in an accident at the outset of his Camino journey. After a kindly French police captain (Tcheky Karyo) gives Tom (and the audience) the basics of the undertaking, Tom embarks on the 500-mile route into Spain, his son's backpack and ashes in tow.
The poignancy of the setup is undeniable, and in Sheen, the writer-director has a performer who can make the most of the dialogue-free stretches, which are the film's strongest sections. Tom's determined stride says plenty. His interactions with the other characters say less. They also pointedly bend the story toward the obvious territory of emotional healing, undercutting Estevez's wise impulse not to impose answers or insist on "closure."
Like Tom, the three people he shares most of the trip with profess no religious purpose, their holy grails lying more on the brain-heart-courage axis. Yorick van Wageningen is the most convincing of the trio, playing gluttonous, gregarious and kind "Joost from Amsterdam," as he usually introduces himself. James Nesbitt's "Jack from Ireland," a blocked travel writer, enters the story like a mad poet, in a bit of actorly overkill set in a scarecrow-friendly field.
And as Sarah, the world's only angry Canadian, Deborah Kara Unger portrays a character whose pain-beneath-the-swagger is evident but who's never entirely persuasive. It doesn't help that she insists on calling Tom "Boomer," when she's no blushing Millennial.
For his first feature since the period ensemble piece "Bobby" in 2006, Estevez has created a more low-key and cohesive movie, and clearly a more personal one. The father-son dynamic is played just right, Tom's sightings of his deceased son arriving at key moments. If only that resonance carried into the rest of the story's episodic progression.
The directorial restraint works when it's not bordering on stiffness, while higher-energy incidents often feel forced — in particular a sequence involving Gypsies and a brief scene with more than a touch of "Psycho" about it.
If this Galicia-bound odyssey suffers from too much talk (and too much music soundtrack), it's at least a refreshing change from the foodie fetishization of Europe that's become standard fare in recent years. At its best, "The Way" addresses the matter of privilege; among its most compelling scenes is a healthy argument about what it means to be a "true pilgrim" in the 21st century.
But even better is one that finds Tom alone, on a bridge over a river, and about to throw himself fully into his adventure. The power of Sheen's performance in those moments offers a glimpse of what might have been in this well-meaning, if too neat and orderly, portrait of modern-day peregrinos seizing the day.