A film review by Craig J. Koban March 14, 2020

THE WAY BACK jjj
½   

2020, R, 108 mins.

 

Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham  /  Janina Gavankar as Angela  /  Michaela Watkins as Beth  /  da'Vinchi as Devon  /  Childress  /  Hayes MacArthur as Eric  /  Rachael Carpani as Diane

Written and directed by Gavin O'Connor

 

 

 

 

Not to be confused with the 2013 coming of age film THE WAY, WAY BACK, Gavin O'Connor's sports redemption drama THE WAY BACK has taken on a whole new personal level as far as star Ben Affleck is concerned.  

The 47-year-old actor recently and publicly came clean about his own decades-long bout with alcoholism, something that derailed his marriage and nearly shut down his career.  Newly clean and sober, Affleck in THE WAY BACK takes on the role of a former high school basketball star that has become a down on his luck fortysomething recluse whose own addiction to booze has tainted nearly every facet of his life, leading to the destruction of his marriage.  

To say that this film is deeply meta would be a vast understatement. 

O'Connor is no stranger to sports films about (a) misfits banding together to overcome odds and (b) struggling families torn apart and then brought together through the healing power of sports.  He made the single best hockey film of all time in 2004's MIRACLE, which showcased the most miraculous U.S. men's hockey team victory against the then unbeatable Russians at the 1980 Olympics.  He also made the terribly underrated WARRIOR, which focused on the fractured relationship between two brothers and their father, with all of them having ties to the world of mixed martial arts.  After these films and now THE WAY BACK the director can now proudly claim to be working on an upper echelon apart from his peers as far as this genre is concerned.  That's not to say that his latest effort doesn't adhere to some sports film conventions, but it does manage to find clever and subversive ways to unexpectedly subvert them all the same.  And Affleck (re-teaming with O'Connor after THE ACCOUNTANT) has simply not been this good in a role in years, whose past history with addiction, no doubt, informed his textured, finely understated, and thoroughly authentic performance. 

To be sure, any reasonably level headed viewer can probably detect that THE WAY BACK is made up of overtly familiar parts: the struggling team of nobodies that no one believes in; the spiritually fallen coach that's hit hard times and needs a win in more ways than one; and the notion of sports as a catalyst to change all of the above for the better.  However, O'Connor adeptly twists and turns our expectations and familiarity of this genre upside down on their heads (especially during its closing sections) and manages to infuse the film with a real gritty verisimilitude.  As the film opens we meet Jack (Affleck), a lonely and introverted construction worker that spends all of his waking hours outside of the job medicating himself in bars.  When he's not there he's polishing off beers by the dozen all alone at home.  We learn that this sad sack was once happily married to Angela (Janina Gavankar), but it eroded due to his self-abusing ways.  Now, Jack is riddled with depression and alcoholism, a lethal combination if their ever was one. 

 

 

Things were once on the up and up for Jack.  25 years earlier he was a sensationally skilled high school basketball player that was destined for college and pro greatness, but a horrid family past dealing with absentee father issues led to him abandoning the sport as a way to piss off his old man.  There's some light at the end of his tunnel when his old high school reaches out and asks for him to fill the head coaching vacancy for the boy's basketball team.  The team, of course, is a clan of athletic losers that barely can string two wins together, and Jack initially tries to find every reason he can to turn down the offer.  Yet, the allure of the game calls to him, so he begrudgingly accepts, hoping to inspire in these troubled kids an opportunity to find the buried and untapped greatness that resides within.  After a series of failures on and off the court, Jack seems himself headlining a winning team, but just when he's starting to find some level of personal redemption, his alcoholic ways come back to haunt him at the worst time, leaving everything he's worked so hard to build with this team in jeopardy. 

One thing that THE WAY BACK does exceedingly well to score points with viewers is that it's not some achingly soft-pedaled, Disney-fied feel-good inspirational sports drama.  O'Connor's goes for bleak nihilism when the film requires it and reminds the audience that alcoholism is not PG rated disease.  Jack is portrayed early on as an incomparably self-loathing man that constantly numbs his inner pains with whatever booze he can get his hands on.  He's simply a wasted mess, and THE WAY BACK should be applauded for thrusting us head first into the toxic tailspin down from grace that Jack is suffering from.  He's isolated himself from just about everyone that's cared for him and there appears to be no end in sight to him giving up the bottle.  This film is most certainly not easy to watch in the early stages, but it accurately highlights the damning and frightening daily grind that addicts go through and how every new day just blurs into the next in terms of habitual destructive behavior.   

Complimenting the film's bleakness is how O'Connor manages to make the dynamic between the team and Jack feel lived-in and real.  The teenage players have impressionable and vulnerable minds, but are definitely rough around the edges and drop nearly as many F-bombs as their coach (the film earns its R rating).  The script does a solid job of showing the gradual de-icing of tension between these lads and their new aggressive minded coach, who absolutely takes zero shit from any of them and freely speaks his mind (one of the better running gags in the film is how Jack's Catholic high school superiors try to curb his coarse language on the court during games, which is an awfully tough request to ask of most competitive coaches).  The team has skills, but little in the way of actual guidance to allow for the activation of them.  THE WAY BACK relays their early defeats on the court in a compelling manner: Instead of showing a highlight montage of the games in question, O'Connor simply foregoes that, freeze frames on an image from the game, and relays the losing score on the screen.  Watching this team lose horribly is almost too much to bare witness to. 

Of course, THE WAY BACK - as is the case with nearly every single other inspirational underdog sports film - contains team defeats being turned into team victories, the coach and his players growing to like and respect each other, and with all of it culminating with the big, proverbial game at the end.  None of this is unpredictable in the slightest in THE WAY BACK.  There's even a moment where O'Connor seems to be ending the film in a highly clichéd visual manner that usually cues the end credits...and then something intriguing happens.  The story abruptly shifts gears and progresses down some unexplored and unanticipated avenues that highlights why this film and its build up is really not altogether about basketball at all.  Instead, THE WAY BACK becomes more about valiantly attempting to overcoming a soul crushing disease that can disappear and re-appear with little warning or reason.  Jack has minor triumphs throughout the story with his victories On the court, and basketball absolutely acts - through most of the film - as a beacon of positive change for him.  Still, THE WAY BACK doesn't end like a typical sports drama at all, and O'Connor's willingness to challenge our own preconceived knowledge of how these genre films unfold is to his credit.  By the time it all reaches a level of finality with a pitch perfectly envisioned closing shot I came to realize that Jack's problems and attempts to heal are bigger than, well, the "big game." 

The multiple Oscar winning Affleck is a far greater actor than he usually gets credit for, and he proves here that when he's married to just the right role and material he can be as authoritative and commanding as any on-screen star.  It would have been easy for Affleck's work here to veer into overdone melodrama to the point where he telegraphs every large emotional spectrum of this broken man.  Rather wisely, he plays the dramatic beats with assured and reserved strokes, and accurately evokes a man that's sometimes in so much mental and physical pain that he can barely muster a word.  Affleck is reliably fired up as an on-court coaching presence that's usually required for these mentor roles, but outside of the game Jack is shown as anguished and defeated, and all of this is sustained by the actor's low key and understated choices here.  It's not the type of flashy Oscar bait work that attracts Academy attention, but Affleck gives a nomination worthy performance here.  And the fact that this role so intimately plays off all of his own highly covered tabloid indiscretions off camera, it just makes THE WAY BACK that much more compulsively engaging. 

O'Connor's execution isn't completely fool proof.  Some subplots feel undernourished, like that of the soft spoken star player with a family chip on his shoulder (well played by Brandon Wilson) that lacks athletic drive because of his own bitter relationship with his father, one that Jack can relate to (this storyline isn't embellished as much as its should have been).  Then there's the fact that the rest of the players built around Jack aren't as fully realized either (they're all given stock character types and traits, but not much more).  And I think the film could have used more of Affleck and Gavankar on screen together (she kind of appears and disappears when the script finds it convenient).  Having said that, THE WAY BACK is as solid of a sports drama as any recently, one that thanklessly doesn't embrace mawkish soap opera elements that usually typifies the well worn genre, not to mention that it has a dramatic veracity largely thanks to Affleck's tour de force, but intensely internalized performance.  And to use a basketball metaphor, O'Connor takes his creative team to the court here, but doesn't lazily adhere to the genre playbook. 

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