Adapted from Jack Hitt's nonfiction book Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain, The Way stars Martin Sheen, who has grizzled rather majestically into a tough old goat – fittingly, it turns out, as he spends most of the film on foot, on a pilgrimage known as the El Camino de Santiago.
Sheen plays Tom, an optometrist who travels to Europe to claim the ashes of his estranged son, Daniel (played in flashback by his real-life son, the writer/director Emilio Estevez). Daniel died in a freak accident along "The Way," as the journey is colloquially called by its pilgrims. Grimly determined to finish what his son started, Tom straps on Daniel's pack and makes the trek along an ancient route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. He's joined in the journey by other damaged souls he meets along the path, and they coalesce into a kind of movie-friendly pack of strays whose idea of a bon camino involves lots of laughter and good wine.
Estevez isn't an especially subtle filmmaker. He overuses a technique in which Tom seems to see his dead son along the path (is Estevez worried the audience will forget the awful grief Tom carries with him?), and the inclusion of an old Alanis Morissette song – 1998's ballad to Buddhism, "Thank U" – is so on the nose it's almost comical. Thematically, the song treads the same ground as The Way – they're both about coming to a place of inner peace – and in fact it proves the perfect analog to the film: spiritual but not terribly religious, kinda dopey but admirably sincere. The Way never arrives anywhere you couldn't see coming a mile away, but it does so with such empathy that its conclusions feel comforting rather than overly predictable.