Ben Affleck has never been better than he is in "The Way Back," playing a character that hits a bit close to home for the actor who has recently opened up about his struggles with alcoholism.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck) was once a prodigy athlete, an all-state basketball player with an amazing amount of talent. In "The Way Back," we find him about as far from those dreams as one can be. He's separated from his wife, Angie (Janina Gavankar), and he is without question a full-fledged alcoholic. He spends his nights at the local dive bar, where other locals ensure he gets home safely every night. He begins each morning with a beer in the shower, and he can easily polish off a case of beer or a bottle of liquor in one sitting. He's on a road to nowhere.
That's when he's contacted by his old Catholic high school and offered to take over coaching the varsity basketball team. "Are they any good?" he asks. A resounding "no" is the Father's response. They haven't been to the playoffs since way back when...back when Jack played for the school. At first he politely declines the offer, but something about it nags at him. He doesn't quite know why, but he ends up coaching.
The group is a bunch of rag-tag students, with varying skills on and off the court. Jack is flanked by an appointed assistant coach, Dan (Al Madrigal), who is actually the school's algebra teacher. This team stinks. There's a rival team across the way who is the top-rated school in the state. Can you see where all this is going?
And therein lies the beauty and the achievement of "The Way Back," because the answer is again, a resounding "no." This is not "one of those" underdog sports movies, but instead is a sly character study of a broken man, and deeper still, the story of broken families.
While the story of the team's journey progresses in the background, the journey of Jack is front-and-center. We learn along the way what happened to him, to his marriage, and to his family. All of this done with a deft hand, as the entirety of this film never once crosses into the realm of cliché, a rare achievement on its own considering it's considered a sports movie.
Co-writer and director, Gavin O'Conner, is no stranger to the genre: He directed "Miracle" as well as one of the best sports films ever made, "Warrior." Here, he somehow manages to tell parallel stories, infusing humor into an otherwise very heavy film, and he finds a way to do justice to both.
There's not a false beat in "The Way Back," and down to certain camera angles and how some of the action on the court flows, everything exists in a stark reality. As some of the best underdog stories of all-time (think "Rocky") have taught us, it is ultimately not about who wins or who loses, it's about what you discover about yourself along the way that really matters.
Jack's life is complex, and so is "The Way Back," so much so that I think it has the ability to really catch a lot of movie-goers off-guard with its authenticity and nuance. It's easily the best Affleck has ever been on-screen, and it's also easily one of the best films of 2020 thus far.
Genre: Drama, Sport.
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Hayes MacArthur, Da'Vinchi.
Co-Written and Directed by Gavin O'Connor ("The Accountant," "Warrior," "Pride and Glory," "Miracle," "Tumbleweeds").
"The Way Back" is in theaters on Friday, March 6th, 2020.
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