10/06/2011 07:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2011

Movie Review: The Way

Old-fashioned and predictable, there's still something moving and even uplifting about Emilio Estevez's film, The Way.

Part of it is the performance by his father, Martin Sheen, in the film's central role. Part of it is the simplicity of the story -- and the fact that Estevez, who also wrote the script, doesn't preach. He just lets a story unfold without forcing his characters to explain what they're thinking or feeling. It's obvious enough -- and much more affecting, because his actors are good enough to show us without telling us.

Sheen plays Tom, a California opthalmologist who is estranged from his adult son. One day on the golf course, he gets a phone call from France: His son has been found dead on a mountainside, a victim of a sudden and unexpected blizzard.

In flashbacks, we see the son, Daniel (played by Estevez himself), trying to explain to his father his belief that there is more to life than simply going to school and using that education to get a job. The son is a seeker, looking for meaning in his life beyond career pursuits. It's obviously a long-running argument between father and son -- one that ends when the son leaves for Europe.

When Tom arrives in the Pyrenees to collect his son's corpse, he discovers what his son was about: He had set off on a pilgrimage known as "El Camino de Santiago," an 800-mile hike from the French side of the border across the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

He learns that people make the trek for all sorts of personal and spiritual reasons and, looking at his son's barely used equipment, Tom makes a decision: He'll walk the route, as a penance for his unwillingness to listen to his son and as an homage to his memory, scattering his son's ashes along the way.

The clichés of the story have to do with the people Tom encounters: a good-natured Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) who's making the trek to lose weight before his brother's wedding; a sharp-tongued Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger) coming to terms with personal demons; and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt), trying to cure a bout of writer's block.

Each of them has their issues; they're all younger than Tom, who is the most silent and observant of the bunch. He won't talk about his son or his grief and seems mostly disapproving of his unexpected companions and their foibles. Yet their embrace of life -- as opposed to his stolid, self-punishing approach to the pilgrimage -- eventually breaks through his shell.

To his credit, Estevez makes the discussions of the trek itself and how it came to be (it supposedly is a path to the burial-place of St. James) seem organic to the story. The encounters that the pilgrims -- pellegrinos, as they're called -- have along the way vary from the schematically inspirational to the ridiculous (the gypsy father who returns Tom's backpack after it is stolen by his teen-age son).

But the film lives and breathes through what is a stirringly compact performance by Sheen, an actor who isn't averse to chewing scenery. Estevez keeps him in check, except in a predictable scene in which Tom lets loose, gets drunk, then unloads by telling his traveling companions just what he thinks of each of them. Otherwise, he lets Sheen's haunted aspect tell his interior story.

Unger, a provocative actress, doesn't get much to do; neither does Nesbitt, who's stuck playing the good-natured blarney-spouter. The real discover is van Wageningen, who makes the seemingly oafish Dutchman deceptively insightful, without sacrificing the character's essential vitality.

Yes, The Way goes exactly where you expect it to -- and yet this journey is worth the trip because the destination ultimately proves so moving.

Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.