I’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor, and Backwards seems like a natural place to look for one.
Abigail Brooks has spent years training for the Olympics in rowing. The last time through she was the alternate. She’s ready to work even harder to get her place in the boat this time around. This has been the focus of her life for as long as she can remember. When the team is announced, she is once more the alternate. Frustrated and feeling overlooked, she quits the team and returns home.
That sets up the metaphor perfectly. Rowing is a sport that is done going backwards. You spend all your time looking at where you’ve been. When Abi returns home, she has no direction. She just looks back at where she has been, feeling as if she’s gotten nowhere. She lands a job coaching crew at her old high school (still looking back) where her old boyfriend Geoff (more looking back) is the athletic director. In the midst of all this, she must find a way into a future. Can she get ahead while still looking back, or must she turn around and look ahead to find her life?
All this plays out well in a sports film. In sports, goals are clear. You know where the finish line is and how to get there. Much of Abi’s anguish is that it is becoming clear to her that she may be just short of the ability to achieve the goal that has defined her life. When she must move out of the clarity of sports into the messiness of life, she discovers that goals may not be as clearly determined.
Of course, the transition is not easy for her—or for those around her. Shifting from being coached to being the coach requires a shift of focus from her own expectations and goals to those of others. She must find new ways to relate to people and to funnel her passion into them. All of this is hard to do as long as she continues to look back.
While the metaphor works through most aspects of the film, there is one place it breaks down. The romantic subplot between Abi and Geoff subtly undermines the overall metaphor. That is not to say that the subplot isn’t satisfying for viewers. It certainly fits our expectations for them both. But the film might have been stronger if there were a discovery that there can be joy to be found that is not anchored in the past.