“The Way Back” stars Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson, Hayes MacArthur, and Rachael Carpani. Released on March 6, 2020, the film is about a former basketball player who is hired to coach a team at his high school.
The film is directed by Gavin O’ Connor, who also directed films such as “Tumbleweeds”, “Miracle”, “Warrior”, and “The Accountant”. There are sports dramas that center on a specific athlete and their struggles, and there are sports dramas that involve a person who coaches a team and deals with their own personal issues in the process. This film belongs in the latter category. After hanging up his Batman costume for good, Ben Affleck is heading back to reality with this latest drama that’s supposed to be inspired by the actor’s real-life struggle with his own personal demons. Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to this type of genre as he had delivered some pretty solid sports films in the past. I recently watched “Miracle” on Disney+ a while ago, and I thought O’Connor did a really nice job at telling that story. If you haven’t seen it and you have the streaming service, it’s worth checking out. Anyway, the film marks the director’s return to the genre and based on his past experiences with it, it’s possible that we might be in for a treat. Is it good enough for me to recommend?
The story follows Jack Cunningham (Affleck), a former high school basketball player who turned down a scholarship to the University of Kansas and his future career. He now works as a construction worker and becomes an alcoholic. See what happens when you don’t go to college, kids? You could wind up on the same path as him. When he is given a job to coach a basketball team at his former high school, he’ll soon get the inspiration he needed to get his life back on track and confront the personal demons from his past. In case you didn’t understand the title alone, which is highly impossible, this is another film that deals with the process of healing one’s self after a series of tragic events left them broken. This theme alone is quite fitting for a sports drama like this because sports are like life itself. They have wins and losses that determine who we are as a person. It depends on what we’re focusing on the most. I’m always in a mood for a film that combines sports action and drama, especially the ones that impacted me on an emotional level. Whether they’re great or not, these films always make solid impressions for me with their inspiring motivations and some crowd-pleasing action. “The Way Back” managed to fit itself into that list thanks to its storytelling that’s both familiar and moving. If you’re a follower of this type of genre, you’ll immediately noticed that the film took some of the pages right out of the “Inspirational Sports Dramas” playbook, resulting in some predictable moments that falter its strong sense of emotion. When it comes to these types of cliches, The quality of a film highly depends on how a filmmaker represent them in a story that they’re trying to tell in terms of the direction and the script. While it’s far from a perfect sports movie, Gavin O’Connor was able to use those cliches to portray a realistic and subtle depiction of alcoholism and some well-directed basketball sequences. The film’s screenplay by Brad Ingelsby also helped in making it feel more like a grounded sports film rather than just a plain old Cinderella story, especially the third act. With the story being so subtle and deeply personal, it made sense that the performances from the cast were like that as well, and I was okay with that. It just goes to show that there’s more to dramatic acting than just random outbursts and hitting or throwing stuff out of anger. Ben Affleck was one of the main elements that drive this film with a performance that’s invigorating enough for him to start off his post-Batman days on the right foot. The film is said to be a form of therapy for the actor after his own experiences with alcoholism, which makes his performance just as authentic as the concept itself. While it’s too early to tell if his performance will be recognized at next year’s awards season, I can at least say that it’s great to see Affleck attempting to be known for his other roles outside of the DC Extended Universe. Al Madrigal was also really good in his role as Dan, a Mathematics teacher who serves as the assistant coach for the basketball team. Speaking of which, the young actors who portrayed the team did a nice job with their performances as well, although I do wish that the film would explore their relationship with Jack a bit more outside of the basketball court. That would’ve made the connection between the players and their coach much more emotional. My only concern for the film was that its representation of the subject matter might make certain people feel uncomfortable, especially the ones who went down that road themselves. Fortunately, the film knows how to draw the line between depression and heart, so you don’t have to worry about it being too dark.
Overall, “The Way Back” dribbles its way past its familiar narrative to provide a well-acted and engaging depiction of redemption. Despite its genre cliches overshadowing its storytelling from time to time, this is another worthy effort from director Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck thanks to its talented cast, its strong messages, and O’Connor’s direction. It’s also another film that succeeds in being both a source of inspiration and a source of discussion for people who remember someone who are following that same path. If you’re a fan of sports films that are inspiring and heartfelt, this film is worth your time.