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Redemption on the hardwood – ‘The Way Back’

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There’s nothing quite like a sports movie, is there? Especially an inspirational sports movie. We love to see an underdog overcome tremendous odds to scrap his/her/their way to success, battling for every step and learning important lessons along the way.

“The Way Back,” directed by Gavin O’Conner from a script he co-wrote alongside Brad Ingelsby, checks a lot of those boxes; it’s the story of a once-great basketball player, long removed from the game, returning to his high school alma mater and taking the reins of their struggling basketball team. Perfect (albeit familiar) fodder for sports movie inspiration, right?

But there’s another level here, one that can’t help but color the story being told.

The film stars Ben Affleck, whose personal struggles have been part of the larger narrative surrounding him for some time now. One could argue that some of those struggles are reflected in the story being told on-screen; that inherent understanding results in some of the best work we’ve seen from him in years.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star whose glory days are long behind him. He spends his days working construction and his nights largely alone; his only constant companion is alcohol. He’s a high-functioning alcoholic, using booze to dull the pain of his past, including the disintegration of his marriage.

There are people concerned with his well-being – his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins, TV’s “The Unicorn”), his estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar, TV’s “The Morning Show”) – but he’s still seeing everything through the bottom of a bottle.

Jack is pulled out of his rut by an unexpected opportunity: his alma mater’s basketball coach suffered a heart attack and they need someone to fill in for the rest of the season. They ask Jack, a symbol of the team’s apex, to step in. Despite having ignored the game for over two decades, he accepts.

With the help of assistant coach/algebra teacher Dan (Al Madrigal, “Night School”), Jack makes the acquaintance of the team, a real bunch of underachievers. He’s got some goofballs and some attitude problems on the roster; he’s also got some guys who could potentially make something of themselves, both on and off the court, with a little guidance.

He struggles initially, but it isn’t long before Jack hurls himself headlong into helping these kids. He curtails his bad habits and ever-so-gradually begins to find ways to heal himself. Of course, it isn’t as easy as all that – when tragedy strikes, Jack is far from equipped to deal with it … and now, he has even farther to fall.

In all ways but one, “The Way Back” is a perfectly serviceable sports movie, the sort of film we’ve all seen a thousand times before. This story is familiar and formulaic, checking all the boxes that we expect to be checked. In most circumstances, it would be a fine experience almost immediately forgotten.

However, this is not most circumstances.

What makes “The Way Back” different – what elevates it beyond its same-old same-old nature – is the presence of Affleck. It is an intense and powerful performance, a rendition of a man beaten down by the contrast of perceived failures with memories of past success … and using unhealthy means to forget.

The temptation is to credit Affleck’s personal struggles with this professional success, but while it’s tough to argue against those struggles informing the performance somewhat, we also need to remember that he is a tremendous talent himself, one unafraid to make bold and challenging choices.

As Jack Cunningham, he projects a lethargic thickness, a sense of someone constantly pushing against an unseen force to simply stay in one place; in Affleck’s hands, Jack is a man to whom any kind of real progress is almost unthinkable, even as that progress seems to be taking place.

The rest of the cast is fine, though no one really stands out, with the possible exception of Madrigal, who finds some surprising moments of comedy and pathos in limited screen time. The women in Jack’s life kind of get short shrift – par for the course in this sort of film – although Gavankar and Watkins do their best with what they’re given. The kids playing the players are OK, though other than Brandon Wilson, no one has much of an opportunity to seize the spotlight. Again, everyone does decent work, but this is undeniably Affleck’s movie.

That’s something that O’Connor clearly understands, finding ways to lend quiet focus to the lonely minutiae of a man who has left hope behind. Isolated moments point to a real understanding of what this character – this actor – has gone through and is going through. The actual sports action is relatively limited, but reasonably well-executed. Still, the best sports movies are rarely about what goes on in the games themselves – the director understands that as well.

“The Way Back” is pretty standard sports movie fare, but the excellent and heartbreaking work of Ben Affleck turns it into something more. Whether you view it as some sort of meta take on the man himself or simply an exceptional performance, there’s no denying that Affleck delivers an absolute slam dunk.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 09:27

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