THE WAY BACK review by Shyam Vedantam – Ben Affleck battles inner demons to help a struggling team

THE WAY BACK review by Shyam Vedantam – Ben Affleck battles inner demons to help a struggling team

Gavin O’Connor is familiar with the underdog sports genre. He’s previously directed the retelling of the gold-winning American Olympic hockey team in MIRACLE and made the criminally underrated MMA film WARRIOR. He knows how to shoot sports sequences to be compelling, but he also imbues all his films with humanity. He is as interested in human connections and emotions as he is in capturing a sports moment. Furthermore, he knows that caring about the people playing a sport is what makes a sports moment a moment. O’Connor has also previously worked with Affleck in the 2016 thriller THE ACCOUNTANT, so the THE WAY BACK is a reunion of sorts for the two of them.

Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham. He’s a steelworker in San Pedro, California. He seems to exist solely to drink alcohol throughout the entire day, closing the bar and having to be carried back to his apartment. His issues are eating away at his relationships – he is divorced and his sister comments on their relationship falling apart. The principal of where he went to Catholic school asks to meet him one day. Jack was a star basketball player in his youth and was offered a scholarship to play at Kansas before his life took a turn. The current coach had a heart attack, and the Catholic school needs a new coach. Jack mulls it over (with a couple dozen beers one night), but then agrees to take the job. The boys team is a hodge-podge of tried and true classic characters (whose defining characteristics don’t add up to much more than these shorthand descriptions) – the smug guy who needs to learn his role, the womanizer sharpshooter, the undersized senior who tries his hardest, the football-turned-basketball player who is too physical, and the meek superstar who doesn’t know it yet.

The supporting characters are cast impeccably. Al Madrigal is funny as the nerdy assistant coach, and Jeremy Radin makes the most of a few lines as the priest who has to try to rein in Jack’s brashness. The players do a good job with the choreography of all the basketball scenes, which are shot well with an energy that makes the audience want to sub into the game. Janina Gavankar (as the wife) and Michaela Watkins (as the sister) are underused unfortunately. They do a good job with grounded performances, but they seemingly exist only to ground Jack and to try to help him recover from his demons. Putting female characters on the sidelines (both literally and figuratively) is a common problem of sports movies unfortunately.

But in reality, Affleck’s Jack is in pretty much every scene of the movie and it’s his character’s story that is really being told. Affleck has been modestly open about his own personal struggles with alcoholism, depression, and how his recent divorce has taken a toll on him. The obvious parallels between his real life and the character have been commented on by nearly everyone on his press tour and review of the film. Without getting into the details, this reflection makes the film even more poignant. It’s a lived-in character. Though not the most agonizing depiction of addiction (which might have to go to Michael Fassbender in SHAME), it’s emotional seeing his life being pulled apart by his addiction.

Ultimately, the film takes a turn from traditional sports films to focus on Jack’s demons. The team wins an important game, but the film doesn’t show them going into the playoffs or championship. O’Connor deviates from that genre. He shows how alcoholism is a parasite infecting Jack’s life. Unfortunately, it isn’t a fully-examined look into addiction. The film explains away the alcoholism by a troubled relationship with Jack’s father and a family tragedy (not to say that these can’t be contributing factors). The “resolution” after he hits rock bottom feels a little too quick. This is one of the few movies that might have benefit from an extra 20 minutes just to make the end’s pacing not feel rushed.

In the end, it feels like O’Connor tried to tell two stories – the underdog sports film and the alcoholism story. By trying the straddle both, neither works fully. He does do a decent job with both storylines, admittedly, but how much the film works for an audience will ultimately depend on how hard either of these halves of a story works for each viewer. The more critical and callous will see through all the genre troupes and be unimpressed. Those who are more along for the ride and wear their hearts on their sleeves will be entertained by well-done basketball scenes and cry at a sad tale of Affleck mirroring his own struggles on screen. It can’t be argued that either is completely wrong, but it’s likely that more people will find themselves in the latter camp.

THE WAY BACK is essentially Ben Affleck (and his character) finding their way back from personal darkness amid a slightly elevated take on the familiar sports underdog film, and earns a 6.5 out of 10.

THE WAY BACK opens March 6, 2020

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