Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Rachael Carpani, Lukas Gage, Hayes MacArthur
Gordon Gray, Ravi D. Mehta, Ga
Warner Bros. on
The Way Back conflates a sports movie with the tale of an alcoholic struggling to overcome his addiction. It plays out a little like a cross between Hoosiers and Manchester by the Sea. Although director Gavin O'Connor and writer Brad Ingelsby have a good handle on the mechanics of substance abuse and recovery, traditional basketball movie tropes are integrated with less success. There's a constant push-pull tug-of-war between the two aspects of the movie that becomes most evident toward the end. Despite narrative issues, the film is overall affecting and effective with Ben Affleck's powerful performance being a driving force.
Affleck agreed to play former standout high school player-turned-middle age coach shortly before falling off the wagon and returning to rehab. He emerged in time to participate in filming with the immediacy of his real-life experience adding layers to his performance. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to call this a career-best acting turn, eclipsing the likes of Argo and The Accountant (which he also made with O'Connor). The precision of Affleck's portrayal, both in terms of the moments of quiet despair and volcanic anger, gives life and vitality to Jack.
The March Madness marketing campaign focuses heavily on the basketball element. Like Gene Hackman's Norman Dale in Hoosiers, Jack is seeking redemption through the molding of a roster of perennial losers into a playoff-caliber team. Both are haunted by their past sins and form bonds with a talented member of the squad. Jack's personal life is a mess. His wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), has left him and he's so dependent on alcohol that he even brings a can of beer with him into the shower.
An opportunity for redemption comes when he is offered the basketball coaching position at his alma mater. He accepts and soon discovers that he no longer has the time to work a full-time job during the day, coach the team, and spend all night at his favorite bar. The more time he devotes to coaching, the better the team becomes and, as it starts a winning streak following a disastrous 1-11 start to the season, he is viewed as a savior. But, although he is no longer drinking, his personal life remains fractured -- something that becomes evident when memories resurface of the events that drove him to drink.
I mentioned Manchester by the Sea not only because of the Affleck familial link but because there are some plot similarities (additional specifics would be considered spoilers) and both Casey's character in the earlier film and Ben's in this one harbor deep emotional scars. Manchester was a better film, in part because it didn' to do too much. The basketball element of The Way Back, although it adds a commercial sheen to the movie, distracts from the character study aspect. Although similarities between The Way Back and Hoosiers are thin, it's possible to argue there's too much Hoosiers here. It tricks the viewer into thinking the story is more about the basketball team than the coach. When it becomes obvious that's not the case, the potential exists to feel unsatisfied by the ending. It's possible to have a competition story in which there's no definitive resolution -- The Cutting Edge did this in 1992 because that was more about the romance than the skating and the final scene focused on the former -- but The Way Back doesn't quite get the balance right.
Nevertheless, even if the sports movie attributes are imperfectly crafted and at times awkwardly incorporated, the story nevertheless offers a strong emotional component. O'Connor isn't beyond engaging in a little audience manipulation and, for the most part, it's done expertly. The movie also (thankfully) avoids some of the most overused clichés that saddle productions of this sort. It may take the viewer a while to recognize that The Way Back is only about basketball insofar as the games intersect with Jack's struggles and that the team's resurrection is an imperfect metaphor for what's happening in the coach's life. Although the screenplay occasionally falters, Affleck's performance is rock-solid throughout and that makes The Way Back a journey worth taking.
© 2020 James Berardinelli