The Way Back, 2020.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor.
Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, da’Vinchi, Hayes MacArthur, Rachael Carpani, Glynn Turman, Caleb Thomas, Marlene Forte, T. K. Carter, Lukas Gage, Jeremy Ratchford, Melvin Gregg, Yeniffer Behrens, Todd Stashwick, Will Ropp, Brandon Wilson, Charles Lott Jr., Chris Bruno, Sal Velez Jr., Nico David, and Al Madrigal.
Jack Cunningham was a HS basketball phenom who walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Years later, when he reluctantly accepts a coaching job at his alma mater, he may get one last shot at redemption.
In Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a fictional character who was at one point the hottest thing in high school basketball and even won a Player of the Year accolade. As we are introduced to the character during adulthood, we see nothing but consecutive scene after scene of a functioning alcoholic finding ways to hide his consumption while doing scaffolding construction work or generally just drinking whenever he can simply because he can (there’s a shot of Jack in the shower with a beer can holder attached to the wall, which is both amusing and sad).
The point is, it’s more than enough to wonder how the hell this guy didn’t go to the NBA or at least make his way to college basketball. An answer is given, and while I’m at it here is your minor spoiler warning: Jack mentions that while his father loved the fact that he excelled at the sport, he soon came to realize that what his father really loved was only the success itself. Apparently, there wasn’t much love or interest between father and son, which set Jack off on a bad path in life to the point where he never wanted to pick up a basketball again. Truthfully, it’s a small moment in a film that is actually more concerned with fighting alcoholism and standard sports clichés, but as a disabled person who never really got to know his birth father because he walked out citing things such as he would never be able to physically play baseball with me, it struck a chord. Some parents don’t want children, they only want the perfect version of their children that exist inside their head.
Something tells me that I’m not the only one that will find a personal connection to The Way Back. It’s steeped in pain for its star Ben Affleck, a recovering alcoholic himself who has recently opened up about all of his vices and regrets. For starters, it adds a layer of believability to Jack getting blackout drunk every night with seemingly no purpose in life. That’s until one morning he gets a call from his former Catholic high school to accept a head coach position for the basketball team. At first, he is disinterested with every intention to call back and decline, rehearsing his rejection phone call over and over as he progressively gets more drunk, as if he’s drinking solely to find the courage to say no. Naturally, the speeches become more slurred and incoherent and even angry, but there’s also a sensation that even Jack himself realizes that his addiction is getting pathetic and that this might be the opportunity he needs to sober up and correct numerous wrongs in his life.
There’s much more to Jack and why he is the way he is, and much of it should be left unsaid when it comes to reviews (especially a midway revelation that sums up why he decided to become an alcoholic). Ben Affleck runs with the material, especially during a few gripping scenes opposite his separated partner Angela (Janina Gavankar) who is having a much easier time moving on in life than he is (this also serves as a motivation for him to accept the coaching position). Even if some of the life details don’t match up to Ben Affleck’s, the uneasy look at how much someone can drink to repress pain while desperately trying to convince themselves that they are living life to the fullest feels authentic due to the personal baggage he is bringing with him on-set presumably every day. Piano melodies from Rob Simonsen appropriately add to the sadness of watching self-inflicted misery (although occasionally the placement of the music can be overbearing as it screams “feel bad for sad Affleck and his addiction”).
Regarding the sports drama portion of The Way Back, Gavin O’Connor is sticking to the underdog story of how a terrible team rising up under new guidance can become a legitimate contender. It’s also hard to fault the filmmaker considering that’s his wheelhouse and what results in his best films (Miracle and Warrior, which both share similarities in ways to this film) compared to dreck like The Accountant (a bad action thriller coincidentally also starring Ben Affleck). However, what separates it from flat-out formula filmmaking is the bond that Jack begins to develop with each of the players, making an impact whether it’s encouraging the born leader to rise up and start showing leadership or getting stricter with a player that wants to be there but also can’t help being late and taking things as seriously as they should be. It’s also appreciated that considering the R rating, the filmmakers can write these teenagers to behave like actual teenagers rather than a sanitized version of high school to better sell the inspirational aspects of the movie.
Still, it’s difficult to find the same level of engrossment for the sports tropes when it comes to the compelling peeling back of the curtain behind troubling alcoholism. There are times when The Way Back almost feels as if it’s going to abandon Jack being a heavy drinker, as if it was all just a set up for him to take his former team back to glory, but as more about his personal life is revealed the film is able to stick the landing when it comes to the intersecting narratives. It’s also a strong showcase for Ben Affleck who has, hopefully, found a degree of peace and closure from acting out his demons on screen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com