[Review] ‘THE WAY BACK’ a game-changing sports film

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE WAY BACK

Rated R, 108 minutes
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Cast: Ben AffleckJanina GavankarMichaela Watkins, Al Madrigal, Da’Vinchi and Will Ropp

It may seem like hyperbole to call director Gavin O’Connor’s THE WAY BACK a game-changer, but it genuinely earns that label thanks not only to its star, but also the filmmakers’ approach. Instead of divorcing itself from Ben Affleck’ real-life travails, it embraces them in a profoundly emotional catharsis. He’s in rare, riveting form and O’Connor, who previously crafted another touching, character-driven sports-drama in WARRIOR, and co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby know precisely how to move with him in creative symbiosis, delivering a top-tier sports film.

Jack Cunningham (Affleck) was a promising state champion basketball player when he graduated from high school in 1994. But the following decades since haven’t been so kind. He’s barely holding on after a devastating loss in his personal life shattered his winning streak. His construction worker gig is wholly unsatisfying, but allows him to maintain a paunchy figure, a thriving sadness beard, and nights spent getting sloppy drunk at a local bar. His home life is a mess. He and his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) split up a year prior and are on a semi-estranged basis. His sister (Michaela Watkins) is concerned about his drinking habits, over which he lashes out at her. He’s drowning in loneliness in his run-down apartment, downing beer after beer (in one of O’Connor’s most effective montages), cracking open the last fresh can in the shower the following morning.

However, this decaying dead-end Jack finds himself in finally yields a breakthrough when his alma mater reaches out to him about coaching their basketball team. Much like Jack, they too are on a losing streak and are in desperate need of a second chance. He’s reticent to accept the challenge, but eventually Jack acquiesces. Small changes (like shifting the players’ positions and plays) have a big impact on the tight-knit team. Jack also begins making small lifestyle changes like sobering up, swearing a little less (one of the film’s long-running gags) and staying present in order to bring his best self to these students.

Al Madrigal and Ben Affleck in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “THE WAY BACK. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The dramatic crux is incredibly daring, mostly for the fact that we’re witnessing Affleck’s real-life therapy play out in reel time. He’s vulnerable to intense scrutiny and judgement. The filmmakers try to hide his giant, garish Phoenix-rising-from-the-flames back tattoo, covering it up or shooting around it in the shower. Yet we make the connection, because it’s as omnipresent as the deeply personal pain, anguish and shame the lead actor is tapping into for this role. 

Affleck’s at his absolute best when he’s forced into somewhat of a cinematic penance. His roles in HOLLYWOODLAND, GONE GIRL and THE TOWN have all arrived after tabloid headlines threatened to eclipse his talents, and they demonstrate why we continue to give him multiple chances. His performance in THE WAY BACK is one of his all-time best, bringing deep empathetic reflection, nuance and staggeringly subtle insights to his portrayal of an alcoholic – and avoiding hokey, hackneyed trappings. 

That credit is also shared by O’Connor and Ingelsby who deliver an inspirational, raw, viscerally engaging story that values heart and humanity. They uncover and mine innovative moments while simultaneously hitting the prescribed notes we expect from a sports film. They follow a formula; however, between those predictable story beats (like the underdog team’s inevitable rise, Jack’s rousing Coach Speech during a pivotal game, and his major setback), we see an evolution in technique.

The filmmakers trim any unnecessary fat to focus on Jack’s journey and how he matures with the kids. For the less sports inclined, it’s a blessing they don’t linger on every game. It cuts from the top of the game to the final score to hammer home the brilliant thematic point that the aftermath and consequences of their actions are what’s important. They also don’t find themselves in the weeds with the students’ struggles. Rob Simonsen’s score is refined and unassuming, as is Eduard Grau’s cinematography, both of which find a quiet, powerful pull emphasizing character. Plus, the film’s disinterest in wrapping things up in a conventional, expected, tidy bow, which as we all know isn’t like real life, is wildly revolutionary for the genre. It’s a little messy, like Jack himself, but it’s that kind of willingness to remain constantly, fervently grounded that makes this film exceptional.

Grade: 4 out of 5

THE WAY BACK opens on March 6.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.