Say the name Emilio Estevez and most people think of the “Brat Pack,” when he was a star in popular Eighties youth movies like “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” or maybe the hockey coach in the “Mighty Ducks” films. Compared to his brother Charlie Sheen, he’s become the quiet, stable brother.
But with his new movie “The Way,” Estevez comes into his own as a producer, writer, and director, telling a beautiful story about death, faith, and family. A father – played by his own father, Martin Sheen – mourns the loss of his son by walking for months on the 500-mile “camino” to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
In an interview on the Catholic cable channel EWTN, Estevez joked about the horror of making the pitch for this movie about a pilgrimage – no massive special effects, no parade of gore or bedroom scenes with nudity. It’s just an old man hiking across Spain with three people he meets along the way. It’s a small movie, made on a small budget. It’s about our humanity and our spirituality. It’s so easy to imagine Tinseltown’s eyes glazing over.
But what Estevez said in that interview was still striking. “Hollywood is a very difficult place to be earnest and be heartfelt. And I am not interested in making films that are anything but. There’s a lot of vulgarity in films. There’s a lot of violence, casual sex – things that make me uncomfortable watching – and I’m not interested in perpetuating that message.”
It must be difficult making that statement when your brother is Charlie Sheen.
A look at the highest-grossing movies of 2011 strongly suggests that lots of fighting with special effects and sequels are what the public wants. Go down the list: the “Harry Potter” finale, a “Transformers” sequel, a “Fast and the Furious” sequel, a “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel, a “Planet of the Apes” sequel of sorts, a Thor movie, and a Captain America movie. The only comedies are both vulgar and R-rated: “The Hangover, Part II” and “Bridesmaids,” which was surely sold to the studio as “The Hangover, Chick Version.” Even the year’s top cartoons are sequels: “Cars 2" (in sixth place) and “Kung Fu Panda 2" (eleventh).
Estevez looks at the number-12 movie “The Help,” as his kind of film, one that shows simple movies about human relationships can find an audience. “I think we have a responsibility as artists, and if we live in that community, and we work in that community, we have a responsibility to lift it up and to raise the bar and to reject that.”
Here’s how “The Way” unfolds. Sheen’s character, California ophthalmologist Tom Avery, is a widower who’s been angry at his son’s decision to forego a graduate degree to wander the world. While Avery’s out on the golf course, a French policeman calls to tell him his son has died in a storm in the Pyrenees.
When Avery arrives to identify the body, the policeman tells him about the “camino,” and he resolves to travel the route with his son’s cremated remains. On this very long walk, he finds companionship with a burly Dutchman who wants to lose weight, an Irish writer with writer’s block, and a bitter Canadian woman trying to quit smoking – and ultimately rediscovers his lost faith.
The movie is beautiful travelogue of the sites along the route, from mountain vistas to beautiful old cathedrals. It’s a great backdrop for a subtle human story. After the Canadian woman cynically suggestes Sheen’s character is there to march on a self-absorbed baby-boomer journey to a James Taylor soundtrack, she’s embarrassed to learn the truth. Later she admits her own dark troubles. She was a battered wife and is haunted by an abortion she underwent because she didn’t want her husband to have two females to brutalize. She says she can hear her daughter’s voice.
Estevez explained, “We give voice to the unborn, and again, that is another thing Hollywood doesn’t necesssarily celebrate.” That’s putting it mildly.
The pro-life and religious messages in this movie are subtle, and some might find them to be too subtle. There’s no aggressive proselytizing for Jesus or Christianity at all, although it wraps up nicely at the amazing cathedral where St. James is said to rest. For the lapsed believer, it could encourage conversation. For the moviegoer who just wants a pleasant movie about life, it’s two hours well-spent. People who support these Hollywood outcasts should vote with their feet. It’s a much shorter walk than the one in the movie.