Tough row for lightweight ‘Backwards’

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Abi (Sarah Megan Thomas) was an alternate on the US Olympic rowing team four years ago. She’s been in training ever since — “Eat, sleep, row” — to make the team outright. At 29, she knows this is her last shot. So when Abi’s chosen to be an alternate again, she’s so upset she quits the team.

But if half your life’s mainly rowing (Abi rowed in a four that won at Henley, the renowned English regatta, when she was in high school), what do you do when you don’t have an oar any more? If you’re Abi, you go back to Philadelphia and move in with your mother (Margaret Colin). If you’re Abi’s mother, you urge your daughter to get her MBA.

Rather than business school, Abi goes back to her high school. The athletic director (James Van Der Beek) is filling in as girls rowing coach — Abi knows this because she and the athletic director were an item once (can you see where this is going?) — so she asks him for the job.

“Backwards” takes its title from the fact that rowing is done facing the wrong way. Also, Abi appears to be going backward in her life. She even ends up attending the high school prom — true, as a chaperone, but still.

Thomas has a long, lean,
Céline Dion sort of face. She’s appealing as Abi, if not that plausible. Championship athletes have an unmistakable intensity to them. Thomas seems more like someone who just works out a lot.

Thomas wrote the script. The results are amiable, even if (or because?) they feel so paint-by-the-numbers. The neatness of the plotting becomes almost comical after a while. Construction is one thing; contrivance is another. It really is amazing the people you find standing next to you in line at the airport these days.

Far worse is the absence of flavor or texture. “Backwards,” a small-scale, small-budget picture, can’t offer the machine-tooled pleasures of a big studio release. But it also lacks the idiosyncrasy or spark — or unpredictability! — that an independent movie with some personality can offer. It’s exciting to see an unfamiliar subculture like rowing get screen time (the film has been handsomely shot, by Harlan Bosmajian, who teaches at Emerson). It’s fun, if you’re used to seeing racing shells on the Charles, to get views of them
on the Schuylkill. It’d be more exciting and fun to see a better