[Review] 'The Way Back': An Inspiring Story Courtesy of Ben Affleck
In the time he has been separated from his wife, construction worker Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) has hit rock bottom. His lonely alcoholism is interrupted when the priest at his Catholic high school offers him a job as head coach of their struggling basketball team; the same team Jack once led to victory. Directed by Gavin O'Connor, The Way Back is a sometimes saccharine but mostly inspiring tale with a career-best performance from Affleck.
Affleck's Jack is complicated. At his construction job, he spends time with a travel mug of vodka instead of speaking to his coworkers. He's sad and struggling, with nowhere to turn. But on the court, around his team, he's a firecracker. Affleck plays both personas remarkably well and creates consistency between them. He gets to show off Jack's total personality through banter with his math teacher turned assistant coach (Al Madrigal) and the team's chaplain (Jeremy Radin). Awareness of Affleck's real-life struggles with alcoholism makes the performance even more powerful.
O'Connor and Affleck previously worked together on The Accountant, to mixed reviews. Choices made for this film gave Affleck more to work with and prove that the two of them should continue their collaborations. From the beginning, we know Jack is separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). We don't 'fully' understand the reason for Jack's downfall until later in the film. This slow-burn shows the complexities of addiction and depression. Mental health experts often tell us not to judge someone else until we know what they've been through. The audience doesn't fully see what's going through Jack's head, which forces us to do just as experts say; empathize, because he's a human being.
The basketball aspect of the film could have been used as a backdrop for Jack's journey. It is, but it's also developed with care. The players are introduced one by one, although some have more personality than others. There's Kenny, the wisecracking ladies man; Chubbs, the team's captain of comedy; and Marcus, the troubled kid who gets a second chance on the court. Most notable is Brandon (Brandon Wilson), the team's star player with a rough home life. Jack sees much of himself in Brandon. They form a father/son dynamic that adds even more depth for Affleck to work with.
Like any sports movie, there are beats and tropes that will be followed. As soon as the priest tells Jack the team hasn't gotten to the playoffs since he was on the team, you know where they're headed. The overly sentimental score by Rob Simonsen almost ruins dramatic moments by hitting the audience over the head with how to feel. I will say, I haven't cared about fictional basketball this much since High School Musical.
Part of the reason why The Way Back resonated so much with me is that my own father regained happiness in recent years after he took a job coaching basketball at his Catholic high school. But even if I didn't have this connection, the film would've still been an incredibly inspiring story; Affleck's killer performance is undeniable. The March release date definitely hurts his chances of receiving any Oscar buzz, but he definitely deserves to be in the conversation.