Ben Affleck’s struggles with alcohol and his stint in rehab were big news, primarily because of the spotlight being Batman puts on an already famous person. His new film, The Way Back (2020), lands close to home, as he plays an alcoholic who finds a second chance at life by coaching a high school basketball team. The film is incredibly engrossing, despite several weaknesses in the plotting of the script. Fortunately, it is easy to overlook the script’s story’s shortcomings, if you are familiar with the inspirational sports drama format as the shorthand is easy enough to interrupt and you can get the gist of what the film is saying.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck), a former high school basketball phenom who chose to give up the game after high school, now finds himself separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), spending his days working a construction job and drinking from morning to night. An unexpected phone call from his high school offering him the opportunity to coach sends him down a different path where redemption seems possible.
Much about this film feels very naturalistic due to the use of a handheld camera and the slightly downplayed drama. Usually, other films dealing with this subject would have been overwrought with melodrama, The Way Back chooses to keep it a little more believable. The deft hands of director Gavin O’Connor and writer Brad Ingelsby constantly introduce elements that seem like the movie is about to go big, but then it elects to instead take a much more mellow route. For the most part, this sense of realism and naturalism seems to want me to forgive some of the story elements that feel underdeveloped, as sometimes in real life things just happen and we don’t follow-up with every thought we have, or the problem is solved much more quickly than we may have anticipated. Nonetheless, it is difficult to shake the idea that some of these elements felt like they needed more attention.
Two stories that really come to mind as needing more set up for later moments to really land in a big way are the relationship Jack has with Miguel (Sal Velez Jr.). Explaining the relationship with Miguel seems to be a bit spoilerish, based on how certain details of Jack’s life are withheld from the audience for an extended period, so I’ll leave the details out to preserve the intended story beats. However, late in the film, there is a moment where it feels like we should know more about Miguel and his connection with Jack for a crucial moment to really land, and it just doesn’t.
The other element that feels half-baked and in need of a bit more attention is Brandon (Brandon Wilson), who is one of ten players on the team Jack is coaching. They establish that Brandon is soft-spoken and yet the most talented player on the team. This trope can be seen in tons of sports films or even movies about teachers and their students. Jack starts pushing Brandon, and it seems to be a vital part of this story. His character is very likable, and yet never really feels like it gets the attention it seems to want. Not that his story needed more drama, but it just felt more like an afterthought. That is true for many of the various pieces which play out in the film, but the big picture is compelling enough and the character likable enough that it keeps the audience hooked.
At times, however, the film has some odd choices by O’Connor or the film’s small budget. For example, there is an extended sequence during a birthday party followed by a visit to the cemetery (this makes sense in the context of the moment) that one could jokingly say was directed by JJ Abrams, as lens flares flood the screen for no apparent reason other than it was a sunny day outside. Another choice that felt odd initially was when the film would choose to show the basketball games and when it would suddenly choose to leave them. The first game is about to start, and suddenly BAM! Freezeframe and overlay the result of the game. This storyline is a bit predictable overall, but fans of the sports genre will probably be okay with that…as the saying goes, we love an underdog story, and basically everyone in this movie is one.
The Way Back is definitely a crowd-pleaser, once you get out of the uncomfortable alcoholic sequences. In fact, for a good third of the movie, it forgets that Jack has a problem with alcohol at all. It is another issue with the plotting of the story, as it seems to imply that a person can just choose to turn off their addiction and replace it with a much healthier one until something sends them scurrying back to the safety of the bottle. Despite that, it is a watchable film that has good intentions, earning it the Decent Watch rating.