In my Freshman year of high school, I played for the basketball team. We were absolutely terrible, as evident by my making the team. I remember one game we played ended with the final score being 68–8. And no, we were not the 68. I personally didn’t like to play basketball competitively; I just enjoyed hanging out with my friends and having fun after school. Coach Jack Cunningham would probably not have liked having me on the team too much. Ben Affleck leads The Way Back, a seemingly cathartic film for him after the actor’s recent bouts with alcoholism and rehab. He plays Jack, a man fighting his own battles who happens upon coaching a boys’ basketball team, the same team he once played for back in high school. But like any good sports movie, the film’s center is not on the sport itself; it’s on something deeper that transcends the genre. And what could be a more compelling center than a coach battling his own self-destructive tendencies as he tries to save a team from self-destructing on the court.
The film begins without much dialogue, as director Gavin O’Connor shows us what Jack has been dealing with the last few years. The tiny messy apartment, the beers in the shower, being helped up the stairs night after night after drinking himself away at the bar. These recur frequently throughout the film, as O’Connor understands that showing us Jack’s struggles is far more effective communication than a dump truck full of exposition ever would be. O’Connor and Affleck previously worked on an underappreciated action film, The Accountant, which, similar to The Way Back, has a more substantial quality to it that transcends the barriers of its action genre.
But really, where can this film go that we haven’t seen covered in other movies? We’ve seen a protagonist battle alcoholism and depression before. We’ve seen an underdog story of a terrible sports team being whipped into shape by a tough coach before. We’ve seen it all before, so what is the purpose in retreading these narrative tropes? And in many respects, The Way Back doesn’t offer anything new. But the question the viewer has to ask themselves is — is the journey still worth taking if you’ve seen the path before? I would argue yes. Even if the beats are familiar, even if we can mostly guess where this movie is heading, what makes it unique is the perspective the filmmakers and stars bring with their take on the story and themes. That is what makes any film unique, and a familiar narrative only becomes tired when filmmakers merely attempt to imitate others’ voices rather than bring their own personal quality to it. And The Way Back is certainly made personal by the nuanced and heavy performance Affleck delivers by emulating his own tribulations on screen.
Going into this film, I was expecting very little diversity. In retrospect, I’m not exactly sure why that was my readied assumption. But, in actuality, a majority of the supporting cast in this film are people of color. From Jack’s wife and her family, to the assistant coach, to many of the players on Jack’s team, this movie is very nicely rounded out by a diverse cast surrounding Affleck. Albeit, they do surround Affleck. He is the central character and the main focus of the film, with little true development being given to any other character, other than maybe Brandon — a shy player who keeps to himself that Jack recognizes as having a lot of potential — played by up-and-comer Brandon Wilson. The film, like pretty much any other movie, could have had more diversity and could have given more substantial roles to those characters, but given this film’s first and foremost focus on the main character of Jack, I can understand why the movie is structured the way that it is.
Overall, The Way Back is a really good movie about addiction and victory. Ben Affleck’s performance makes the film, and is its beating heart. He is an actor who, for anyone who has been truly paying attention to his career, turns in a committed and powerful performances. While there are many beats in the film that come as no shock, I at least was invested in this character’s journey and in this team, and I wanted to see it unfold through these characters in this particular story. The Way Back won’t be talked about during Oscar season (and with its $8 million opening weekend, I doubt it’s been talked about much now), and it’ll probably be one of those movies you forgot that you saw three years from now. It doesn’t have the staying power as some of Affleck’s other films such as Good Will Hunting. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that The Way Back is an impactful movie to see now, and it is one that I am certainly glad I checked out.
Author: Nathanael Molnar, originally published [3/16/2020]