So to be clear, this isn’t 2010’s “The Way Back”, Peter Weir’s terrific survival adventure starring Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris. And this isn’t “The Way Way Back”, the 2013 coming-of-age indie and Sam Rockwell showcase. This is in fact 2020’s “The Way Back”, a deeply personal and emotionally intense character study disguised as an uplifting sports drama.
Most sports movies follow a pretty familiar blueprint and in some ways this film is no different. But the best sports movies work because they capture the human element. In “The Way Back”, the sports stuff follows the usual formula and it’s the human element that indeed stands out. In fact you could say that basketball is simply a meaningful plot mechanism helping to tell the story of a broken man on the precipice of self-destruction.
Ben Affleck gives one of the best performances of his career playing Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who recently separated from his wife Angela (a terrific Janina Gavankar). Early in the movie we learn Jack is a raging alcoholic and the film puts a lot of effort into effectively emphasizing how far he has spiraled. Disconnected and out of sorts, Jack’s dependency on alcohol as a means to quell his suffering only intensifies as we learn more about him.
But a ray of light comes in the form of a phone call from his Catholic high school alma mater. Jack was a star player back in the day. Now they want him to come back and take over the team after their head coach suffers a heart attack. He reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself once again enjoying the game he had left behind.
But director Gavin O’Connor (who worked with Affleck on “The Accountant”) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby keep their film from succumbing to formula. Yes, much of the sports angle rings familiar. But one of the best things about the story is how it blows by the expected ending, skipping the easy out and staying true to its character-driven convictions. Basketball doesn’t miraculously heal Jack. It points him in the right direction, but his demons don’t magically disappear. The filmmakers wisely avoid the sentimental cop out.
You can’t help but sense an almost autobiographical vibe with Affleck’s performance. Considering his own real-life battles you could see this role as being therapeutic. Affleck fully commits himself and the honesty he brings lets you know he’s pulling from an intensely personal place. Gavankar is a great counterbalance. In their few scenes together her restrained, emotionally delicate approach adds a special layer to their relationship. It’s clear Angela is hurting too and Gavankar does a great job of conveying it.
As O’Conner showed with 2011’s “Warrior”, he’s no stranger to subverting the traditional sports drama. He does it again here on the back of a powerful, unflinching Ben Affleck performance. The sports stuff bops along in predictable fashion and some of the lightheartedness that comes with it doesn’t always land. But when focused on Affleck (which it mostly is) the movie shines and it smartly leans into the actor’s own experiences. It doesn’t offer clean and simple answers, but it does believe in second chances. Regardless of whether you’re a down-and-out construction worker/basketball coach or an immensely talented middle-aged actor.
VERDICT – 4 STARS