Ben Affleck Brings His Own Battle to the Screen
DIRECTOR: GAVIN O’CONNOR/2020
Jack Cunningham is an alcoholic. This is not a spoiler—in fact, it’s the first thing you learn about him in The Way Back. Before you meet his family, before you know the inciting incident of this story, before you see the title on screen, you see Jack (Ben Affleck) drinking more beers than I could count. However, as you might expect, he wouldn’t call himself an alcoholic. He also wouldn’t call himself a high school basketball coach, but when his former principal asks him to return to his alma mater, he can’t say no to reminding their losing team of the glory days when he was their star player. Will he be able to keep his addiction in check with this new responsibility? Or will his past take hold of his future?
The Way Back represents my least favorite kind of movie to review. I don’t mean movies about basketball or about alcoholics—I mean movies that are just…fine. With a great film, you can prattle on about what moved you until you run out your word count, and with a bad film, you can rant till it’s off your chest. But with a movie that’s fine? Well, what angle do you take then?
The obvious angle: Affleck. He anchors the film with a solid performance, one given extra poignancy because he’s discussed its connection to his own battle with alcoholism. As you watch Jack get stuck inside his head and choose isolation again and again, it’s difficult to separate the character from the actor, which matters quite a bit since the script isn’t strong enough to explore all the depths of addiction. For example, we learn the reasons for his struggle late in the story. Another version of this script would introduced them (or at least hints of them) earlier to assign more meaning to earlier scenes that felt slow or trivial.
Affleck does heavy lifting to accommodate for that, but he can’t provide the weight those moments need all on his own. The kids on the basketball team are charismatic, but they don’t get enough time on screen to rise above sports movie clichés. The story takes a little too long to get going, and the runtime is a little too long overall.
That said, my audience laughed (especially at Jack’s foul-mouthed tendencies in a Catholic sports league), and I know at least one person in the audience cried. (Shout-out to my mom!) A local high school boys’ basketball team attended, and they were responsive. Aside from our star, not much of The Way Back is way memorable, but if you’ve enjoyed stories of sports teams overcoming the odds or if stories centered around addiction resonate with you, it will hit the beats you expect for a fine night at the movies.