The Way Back, from its trailers and marketing, comes across as a cliché underdog story. A story about a d-league basketball team that works their way to the top. However, the story of The Way Back is so much more than that. Director Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck re-team for one of Affleck’s most intimate and personal projects yet.
The Way Back’s main focus is on the character of Jack Cunningham. He is a man who drifts from one day to the next and can’t seem to function without alcohol. It isn’t until the opportunity to coach a high school basketball team that Jack finds a new outlet to escape. An opportunity to move past his past and embrace a new calling. This is The Way Back. Director Gavin O’Connor was almost unable to make this film, due to Affleck’s own personal struggles. However, the determination of Affleck to finish this project poured into its production. The highlight of this film is without a doubt Ben Affleck’s performance as Jack. Jack Cunningham is a deeply damaged character, something extremely evident in the subtle performance from Affleck.
His interactions with his players, his family, and friends give us great insight into his character and motivations. We watch as Jack delves deeper into his drinking the more he is confronted with his problems. It’s a struggle that is all too real for some people and Affleck portrays it genuinely and sincerely. The respect put into the issues addressed in the film is astounding.
The production on The Way Back also has a genuine feel to it. The various sets and production design make the world feel lived in and real. From the basketball court to the bar Jack frequents, The Way Back makes it a point to make the audience feel settled in this film. You feel the growth these characters go through in the run time. This is in no small part thanks to the basketball team coached by Jack. The supporting cast that includes Brandon Wilson, Will Ropp, and Melvin Gregg are phenomenal. Their performances as Jack’s players in the basketball team are cliché but played well enough.
The journey they go on that parallels Jack’s journey to recovery is exhilarating to watch. Basketball is portrayed in an intense and entertaining manner. Watching the team turn into a championship contender under direction from Jack was one of the most enthralling parts of the film. The film portrays the progress convincingly as well. They don’t turn into a success over night, and some games are lost.
Watching Jack use each teammate to their best potential and changing plays and team structure was a highlight of the film. The score, provided by Rob Simonsen, does its best work in scenes in which the game of basketball is played. The way the score elevates just as a game reaches a critical point provides an emotional depth to it that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. The editing and cinematography of The Way Back helps to make these games so engaging to the audience. Filled with long shots that don’t break away from our characters and fantastic wide shots the establish intimate backdrops, the film makes great use of its setting.
The story of The Way Back, as mentioned at the beginning of the review, is not as cliché as advertised. While it has some predictable story beats that fit the typical sports movie mold, O’Connor and the whole crew take it to another level. The film packs so much emotional resonance thanks to its lead performance, and wears everything on its sleeve. The story takes a subversive twist in its third act that is unexpected to the audience but natural to the story.
The best thing The Way Back could have done is make the focus on Jack Cunningham. In making his duties as basketball coach second in the focus, we are able to understand the choices Jack makes, and feel empathetic when he makes the wrong ones. His tragic backstory elevates the narrative. The decisions Jack makes for his life are unexpected, but nonetheless powerful.
The Way Back is a story of perseverance in the face of adversity and facing problems in spite of emotional struggles and familial issues. It’s a film that is equally exciting and emotional carried by one of the best performances Ben Affleck has given in recent years. It’s clichés are shadowed by the surprisingly subversive narrative that aims to tell the story of one mans way back to recovery. If there is any film to watch at home in this time of struggle, it is The Way Back. – Ernesto Valenzuela
GRADE – 9/10
‘The Way Back’ is now available to purchase on digital.