Going into dir. Gavin O’ Connor’s The Way Back, I was expecting a typical sports movie with the addition of character drama focusing on a man’s battle with alcoholism. While the Way Back didn’t fall short of my expectations, Ben Affleck’s performance as a depressed father dealing with the sins and horrific events of his past manages to elevate the film.
Affleck plays former star basketball player Jack Cunningham, who, after losing his son to cancer, falls into a never-ending cycle of despair and regret. When a friend from Cunningham’s past asks him to coach his school’s alma matter’s basketball team, Cunningham reluctantly agrees to step in. And as the group starts to win games, Cunningham evaluates his alcoholism and goes to seek help from his ex-wife Angela.
The Way Back feels like two movies mashed into one, with each story struggling to give the other space. Cunningham’s confrontation with his alcoholism is the sincerest out the two, with Affleck and O’ Connor not shying away from the harshness and honesty of the situation. It’s brave for Affleck to tackle such a realistic issue considering his battles with alcoholism in the past. But maybe because of that, Affleck brings a quite ruthless and determination to the role, giving an understated performance that is sensitive to how people deal with addiction in the real world.
But outside of Cunningham’s battle with his demons is the typical underdog sports movie that never quite feels realized. Actor Al Madrigal plays the assistant coach to Cunningham’s head coach, offering much of the short comedy in the film. And while some of the young basketball players stand out, their interactions with each other don’t fit with the film’s dramatic tone. However, Cunningham’s coaching scenes do fit, as they exhibit a passion and determination which speaks to Cunningham and his desire to win. Never once did I feel Cunningham didn’t care about his team’s chances for success. The more the team won, the more Cunningham distanced himself from alcohol.
The Way Back is a dramatic sports film that works thanks to Affleck’s performance. Although it does feel like it has an indemnity crisis at times, it also doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the issues it presents.
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