Ben Affleck reteams with director Gavin O’Connor in Warner Bros Pictures The Way Back. Jack Cunningham is a former star basketball player turned alcoholic construction worker, who’s down on his luck. The day after a tumultuous Thanksgiving dinner with his immediate family, Jack receives a phone call from Father Devine, a priest at his former high school.
Informing Jack that the current basketball coach recently suffered a heart attack, Father Devine would like Jack to step in and coach the team. Initially hesitant, Jack relents and decides to accept the position. With the help of school math teacher Dan (Al Madrigal), Jack hopes to turn the losing team into a winning one. The players on the team include star player Brandon (Brandon Wilson), who lacks confidence and ladies’ man Kenny (Will Ropp).
Reading the description for The Way Back and going off of the ad campaign, one would think it’s a simple underdog story with a feel-good message. That, however, isn’t the case; instead, writer Brad Ingelsby, who co-wrote with the film’s director Gavin O’Connor, create a sobering tale about grief and addiction.
As our lead, Ben Affleck gives a performance that arguably jubilates with his real-life addiction issues. The character of Jack is an addict who refuses to get help, and Affleck quickly taps into the emotional layers of the character. Whether it’s arguing with his family or serving as the life of the party at the local watering hole, Affleck gives one of his best dramatic performances in recent memory. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are with his estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). The chemistry vibes between the two are genuine, and I could see them as a married couple on the outs.
The rest of the cast are on autopilot since the film is an acting showcase for Ben. The youth who make up the basketball team fall into the general character template of a sports film, with no one really standing out. The only character given any arc is Brandon (Brandon Wilson), and even then, his storyline is routine and predictable. In hindsight, this hurts the film a bit as I wouldn’t have minded an expansion for the character. I have a similar sentiment with Jack’s family, as I felt the role of his sister was underwritten.
Director Gavin O’Conner is no stranger to the sports genre, as in the past he previously directed a sports films centered on hockey (Miracle) and one about mixed martial arts, the vastly underrated Warrior. The basketball sequences of The Way Back are directed with flair. O’Conner doesn’t make the mistake of showing the team losing games; instead, we see the pep talk before the game and then the final score. When the team gets a winning game, the payoff is more rewarding.
Fans going into The Way Back expecting a crowd-pleasing sports film may be upset. However, at its core, The Way Back is about just that, finding your way back to the simple joys of life after a tragedy. Featuring an immersive and award-worthy performance from Ben Affleck, The Way Back is worth a trip to your local cinema.
Final Grade B+