THE WAY BACK

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Stars: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Brandon Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Glynn Turman, Will Ropp, Fernando Luis Vega, John Aylward, Jeremy Radin, Matthew Glave.

Ben Affleck and Tyler O'Malley in The Way Back (2020)

An alcoholic former basketball star finds a shot at redemption by coaching his former high school team. This formulaic redemption tale is reminiscent of other underdog sporting films such as 1986’s Hoosiers and Coach Carter, and it ticks a lot of the boxes for the underdog sports dramas.

Ben Affleck delivers one of his better performances as Jack Cunningham, the prodigy of his Catholic high school basketball team, who walked away from the game. His life has become something of a train wreck since those halcyon days. Separated from his wife and still grieving the death of their child two years earlier, Jack has found solace in drink – copious amounts of drink – and isolation. He works construction by day but spends most of his nights drinking at a local bar. But then he is thrown a lifeline by the priest (John Aylward) at Bishop Hayes High, his former alma mater. The team’s basketball coach has retired following a heart attack, and the head priest asks Jack to step in. The team has not enjoyed success for a couple of decades. At first reluctant Jack decides to take on the job. But Jack is demanding, volatile and sometimes clashes with the team’s more laid-back assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) and the team chaplain Father Mark (Jeremy Radin), who disapproves of his casual profanity.

Eventually he begins to turn around the struggling team’s lack of cohesion and ability making them more competitive. The team also begins to enjoy playing basketball again. And as the team’s fortunes improve and they seem headed for the playoffs Jack begins to face up to the demons of his past. But how long will he be able to keep his addictions and personal demons at bay?

The Way Back has been written by Brad Ingelsby (formulaic action thrillers like Run All Night, etc), and while its overriding narrative arc is familiar on the surface, the script does not always conform to convention. The film deals with big themes of addiction, obsession, relationships, grief, and redemption and occasionally lapses into melodrama. There are a number of subplots running throughout the narrative, including Cunningham’s troubled relationship with his estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) and his mentoring of Brandon (Brandon Wilson) the reserved teen who he recognises is the most talented player on the team. However, some of the myriad subplots are not as successful as others.

The Way Back is the third sports themed film for director Gavin O’Connor who gave us Miracle (2004), about the US ice hockey team’s unexpected win over the highly fancied Russians in the 1980 Olympics, and he also put Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy through their paces in the sports themed drama Warrior (2011). O’Connor previously worked with Affleck on the gritty popcorn thriller The Accountant; here Affleck is able to tap into his own recent personal off-screen demons and personal life – a messy divorce and his own battles with alcohol – to shape and inform his performance here as the deeply flawed and self-destructive Cunningham. He has put on the weight and grown a shabby beard to play Cunningham. It is not hard to draw some insights into Affleck’s own troubled life from the complex characterisation he delivers that blurs the line between the on-screen character and his off-screen personal life. He gives us an empathetic and nuanced performance as a broken man on a downward spiral who is given a shot at turning his life around that ranks as some of his best work for years. It is certainly his most personal film for some time.

The basketball scenes are well staged and nicely shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man, etc), who also makes great work of the Southern California locations, and edited by David Rosenbloom (Black Mass, etc).

★★★☆

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