Synopsis – Jack Cunningham was a HS basketball phenom who walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Years later, when he reluctantly accepts a coaching job at his alma mater, he may get one last shot at redemption.
My Take – Irrespective of some of the films he chooses to star in, I have always liked Ben Affleck. After all he is one of the few actors left who represent the perfect epitome of a true blue American film star, with his chiseled looks and staggering personality. However, despite making a perfect move from a general leading man to a prestigious director, Affleck has always been defined by his personal life than his professional output.
From his controversial love affairs to addictions to his disintegrating marriage to Jennifer Garner, his co-star from Daredevil (2003), to Sadfleck memes, his private turmoil have always managed to eclipse the good work he has done on and off screen.
And now after taking a short hiatus to attend to his personal well-being, with this film, Affleck marks his return to big screen, following the 2017 debacle called Justice League, by teaming up with director Gavin O’Connor, with whom he first collaborated on 2016’s The Accountant, his last success story.
While at first glance, the basketball film may seem like a standard underdog sports drama, but considering director Gavin O’Connor‘s work on films like Miracle and Warrior, it was always safe to assume that the film was always going to be something more. Unsurprisingly, the film works quite well, as it is understated and willing to embody genre tropes while quietly subverting them in its favor.
Most importantly, it doubles as an affecting redemption story for both Affleck and the character he’s playing, allowing the actor to mine his personal history for a truly effective performance, giving the film both an emotional heft and a kind of likability.
The story follows Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), who works in construction by day, and is a hardcore drinker by night. Years ago, he held a life filled with promise, as in high school, he was a basketball phenomenon with a full university scholarship, when suddenly, for reasons unknown, he walked away from the game, forfeiting his future.
Now, following an unthinkable loss, he is estranged from his ex-wife Angela (Javina Gavankar), and scraping by with his firm habit and no way out in sight. That is until, Father Edward Devin (John Aylward), offers him a job to coach the boys varsity basketball team at his alma mater Bishop Hayes, the scene of his glory days, that hasn’t competed in the playoffs since he left.
Reluctantly agreeing Jack realizes that the young team of players have skill, but require the proper guidance to harness them, and for him to help them exploit it, he must finally confront the demons that have derailed him.
While the film is pure melodrama, it adds a real sensitivity and depth to its formula. It rarely dips into the mawkish, instead offering a quiet, stolid vision of one man’s road to recovery, anchored by Affleck’s tremendous performance. Yes, this is a familiar sort of format, but painted with some extra dimensions not normally included, it turn into a fine example of both sports cinema and character work.
Here, director Gavin O’Connor, co-writing the script with writer Brad Inglesby, take the best of both worlds, and make not only an intriguing character study focused on addiction and recovery, but also a sports story for the ages.
The film delicately balances brief sequences showing games with scenes that focus on Coach Cunningham and his relationships with the students and his family, then slowly it introduces Cunningham’s back story, creating a grander portrait of the lead character, all the whole balancing the story of Jack’s struggles as well as that of his team, never robbing neither half of its importance. There are even some well-placed turns the film takes with its characters that only hammer home the importance of a very real story.
Rooting for both Jack Cunningham and the team he’s coaching is easier than ever thanks to the troubles he faces. While the team’s arc from underdogs to unexpected champions, hits all the beats of the sports drama formula, down to the training montages to Jack’s encouraging of the team’s sensitive star player (Brandon Wilson) to break out of his shell and reach his potential, it’s clear that the sports aspect of the story is second priority to Jack’s redemption arc, though his becoming a basketball coach is essential in initiating his transformation.
Seeing him morph into a take charge coach that helps a team of teenagers turn their fates around brings out all the best in Cunningham, and when he cranks things into full coaching mode, you can’t help but feel inspired yourself.
The biggest strength of director O’Connor’s film though is how nontraditional it often feels. It never feels like a traditional sports film, where the climactic moment comes when the underdog team strives to win the game-winning point. Instead, the climax focuses on Cunningham and the decisions he makes in life.
The role is very clearly a vessel for Ben Affleck to work through something difficult and personal to him, and his performance overcomes any of the story’s weaknesses, with his equal parts angry and sad turn ranking as one of the finest of his career thus far. We watch him suffer through a range of emotions while he struggles with the cards life has handed Jack. Affleck has also spoken about how this role helped him with his own sobriety and I’m sure having personal experience to draw from makes his performance even more powerful.
In supporting turns, John Aylward, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal, Glynn Turman, Michaela Watkins, Will Ropp, Brandon Wilson and Melvin Gregg also do quite well. On the whole, ‘The Way Back’ is an inspirational and rousing sports film uplifted by Ben Affleck’s stirring performance.
Directed – Gavin O’Connor
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes