I still remember my first Tenderness Tour as if it were yesterday. It has been almost exactly 22 years since I left downtown Indianapolis in my wheelchair with nothing but a backpack, $20 and a few press releases announcing my bold but insane plan. I was going to travel around the border of Indiana, zigzagging it a couple times ... 41 days and over 1,000 miles traveling alone by wheelchair.
I was searching for something. I called the event the "Tenderness Tour," because in my mind it was tenderness that I was searching for the most ... a semblance of kindness, maybe? A reason to keep going?
By the time I arrived at that point where I felt like the only thing left to do was to start wheeling as far as I possibly could, I'd already attempted suicide multiple including a final attempt that was so dramatic that its failure left me torn between feeling indestructible and cursed. I had parked my car on the far end of a Kroger parking lot, well away from any nearby vehicles, and had doused myself and my car with gasoline. I lit it with a lighter.
Nothing. No spark. No flame. No smoke.
I couldn't die, but I felt like such a failure at living. The weird thing about growing up with spina bifida is that while they taught me how to survive, I'd never really figured out how to live.
It wasn't spina bifida, or my history of childhood sexual abuse or any one thing, that led me to that point of traveling the roads of Indiana alone in my wheelchair. It was more the the cumulative influence of a series of tragic and challenging life events that left me feeling alone, desperate and disconnected from life and love. In the year leading up to the Tenderness Tour, I'd experienced the significant losses of my wife, newborn, finances, home and, finally, even both feet as I'd lost both my will to live and my ability for self-care.
So, I wheeled.
I wheeled for 41 days and 1,086 miles. I wheeled through big cities and small towns, occasionally joined by strangers inspired by the mission and attracting more and more attention along the way ... city leaders, media, civic organizations, churches and abuse survivors all wanted to hear a story I didn't even know I had. I ended up in the emergency room twice, but I kept going. I traveled in heat, in rain and in snow (This is Indiana, after all...We're prone to all three weather conditions in the same day).
I returned home an entirely different human being. I believed in "tenderness" and the tattoo on my left arm reminds me on the days that I forget. Since that tour, I've taken at least a small tour every year since with a cumulative mileage of well over 3,000 and having helped children's organizations raise over $300,000.
I'm still not always the best at self-care. I can be laughably socially awkward. But, over the course of those 41 days and 1,000+ miles I learned how to live my life.
With The Way,
writer/director Emilio Estevez has created an exquisitely beautiful and emotionally honest film that will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever gone searching, been hurt, grieved, fallen in love, felt inadequate, experienced writer's block, questioned God, given up on God or who has simply learned to discover the beauty of everyday life against remarkable odds.
Tom (Martin Sheen) is living life in a comfortable California bubble as an ophthalmologist and a frequenter of golf courses. The Way
opens with Tom quietly worrying about his son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), a young man whose soul searching has led him to give up on chasing his doctorate in favor of a life of wandering through Europe. While the two have clearly experienced a disconnect following the death of Daniel's mother, there are also gently intertwined moments where their affection for one another is obvious. It is in the film's opening moments that Tom receives the news of Daniel's accidental death during bad weather while he was hiking the El Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James, a 780 km path from France to Spain traveled by those referred to as "pilgrims."
It is when Tom travels to France to retrieve Daniel's body that The Way
really begins to soar as the 60+ year-old Tom makes the decision to complete Daniel's journey.
Despite being advised by a marvelous French police captain (Tcheky Karyo, A Very Long Engagement
) that he is ill-equipped for such a strenuous trip, Tom heads out with his son's backpack and, for the most part, without a clue as to what he's truly getting himself into. He rather quickly encounters a Dutch blowhard, Joost (Yorick van Wageningen, Winter in Wartime),
walking The Way
for much deeper reasons than his self-described desire to lose weight, then there's a chain-smoking woman, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger, The Game),
whose reason for walking is at first acknowledged as a desire to quit smoking at the end of the trip and, finally, the last companion will be an Irish writer, Jack (James Nesbitt, Five Minutes of Heaven)
dealing with a serious bout of writer's block.
There will be some who will fault The Way
for its fundamental construct, a framework of somewhat "typical" encounters at inns, hostels, welcoming communities and not so welcoming communities. There are, of course, challenges along the way and fights to be fought and conflicts to be resolved. Tom will start out his journey a tightly wound ball of despairing emotions, only to unravel over time into the safe embrace of this newly developed family and, in a spiritual sense, into the loving arms of St. James.
At times, it's all a bit too convenient and, at times, the platitudes spoken wax as faux elegantly as Jack's wine-addled poetic rantings.
Who cares? It works.
Martin Sheen is simply extraordinary as Tom, offering a depth of performance unlike anything he has done theatrically in quite some time. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor has long been acknowledged as one of Hollywood's finest actors, but his performance as Tom mine's rather remarkable depths of humanity, vulnerability and honesty that are simultaneously heartbreaking and joy-filled. Watch everything that Sheen does in this film, from the facial expressions to the eyes to even the way that he walks. Sheen's performance understated yet absolutely mesmerizing and easily one of the finest performances in a theatrically released film yet in 2011. Sheen has worked with Estevez on seven occasions now, but this film is clearly their finest achievement to date.
As Joost, Yorick van Wageningen very nearly steals Sheen's thunder as a larger than life Dutchman with a blustery bravado that masks an intimately wounded soul that you just want to wrap in a giant bear hug. Van Wageningen gives The Way
much of its humor, but also adds a tremendous soulfulness to the film that will leave you thinking about his character long after the film's closing credits have rolled by.
Deborah Kara Unger, as Sarah, also serves up what may be one of her best performances to date. Unger's Sarah is simultaneously angry yet tender, a ball of confusion whose constantly on the verge of bubbling over.
Jack's introduction into the film at first feels a bit jarring, the ebullient vibrancy of Nesbitt's performance at first conflicting with the film's slower paced contemplative nature. Yet, over the course of the film we begin to realize that Jack's journey is far different from that of the others and, as a result, by film's end it all makes perfect sense and feels just right.
The camera work by Juan Miguel Aspiroz is exceptional, especially given the challenge of filming a good amount of the film on the actual trail. Aspiroz captures both the beauty and the intimidating aspects of the trail, an important balance that makes us understand why so many are drawn to this trail while never letting us forget that this challenging journey also claimed a life.
The original music from Tyler Bates serves as the perfect companion for the film, occasionally playful and at other times stark and complicated. The use of language in the film feels remarkably authentic, with Estevez making a refreshing choice to not utilize subtitles on those occasions when a person speaks their native tongue. This lack of interpretation actually works perfectly, because all of these performers communicate so clearly through their body language and actions that actual words, at times, would only get in the way.
There have been many filmmakers who have tried to effectively capture both the tangible and spiritual expressions of one's soul journey ... a few have succeed with films such as Walkabout
and Gus Van Sant's Gerry
immediately coming to mind. However, most have created films that have felt pretentious, confused or, even worse, just plain boring.
beautifully weaves together the spiritual, tangible and mundane aspects of life's journey into a simple yet beautifully realized film that will do more than simply aesthetically please you - it will inspire you to look inward and embrace outward.
was the Opening Night Film for the 2011 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and begins a limited nationwide run in theatres on October 21st, 2011. Estevez and Sheen, along with producer David Alexanian, have been on a nearly two-month bus tour through the country promoting the film and appeared at the film's Heartland Film Festival Screening with a generous pre-screening media blitz that included a rare openness to web-based media. The Way
also received Heartland's Truly Moving Picture Award. For more information on The Way,
visit The Way's website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic