Ben Hickernell’s lighthearted Backwards at least begins with the seeds of something dark. Four years after serving as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic rowing team, Abi Brooks (screenwriter and former rower Sarah Megan Thomas) has one last chance at competing for a gold medal; instead, she gets a second run as an alternate, and rather than play backup again, quits and moves to her mother’s Philadelphia home. The film flirts with the rudderless feeling that might befall someone who did nothing but train intensively for four years, only to fall short of the podium, the final race, or actually competing. But it never goes beyond a superficial first glimpse of the aftermath: a shot of Abi binge-eating Tootsie Rolls and a day spent reading magazines on a couch. After that, Abi’s lounging forces a motherly ultimatum—move on from dreams of Olympic gold or move out—and, as luck would have it, Abi’s high school needs a girls rowing coach. So move on she does, with the added perk of gaining Geoff (James Van Der Beek), her former high school sweetheart, as a boss.
Hickernell revisits familiar themes from his 2010 film, Lebanon, PA: the contrast of a 30-year-old’s sudden lack of direction with a teenager’s coming of age story—the rediscovery of small comforts after searching out bolder dreams. In this case, Abi’s dispirited return to Boston is juxtaposed with the dramas of two members of the high school rowing team, Hannah (Alexandra Metz) and Susan (Meredith Apfelbaum), who show tremendous promise but lack the discipline and drive needed for success. That’s where Abi comes in, and where Backwards becomes an inspirational sports flick.
The film streamlines its busy set of plots and subplots into a 90-minute sprint, throughout which characters often confront and overcome their obstacles within the same scene. Hickernell and Thomas show themselves fully capable of setting up conflict and offering resolution; it’s the messy business in between that they falter on or skip over entirely. The film’s dark unconscious does come out again toward the end, in a note from Abi’s mom: “All paths lead nowhere, so choose a path that has a heart.” It would be unfair to ask for a film focused only on the grimly nihilistic first half of that statement, a film completely different from what the filmmakers intended to make. But by only briefly acknowledging the adversity that comes with downsizing to a smaller life, Backwards may recognize Abi’s crisis, but it never truly commits to her struggle.