In Ben Affleck’s new film The Way Back, director Gavin O’Conner manages to create a competent film that tells a tale of struggle, addiction and dedication that’s sure to surprise you. I went into this film with low expectations because the film’s premise, as told by Google, is of a former high school basketball star who takes it upon himself to coach a group of rowdy, racially diverse, and underdeveloped kids at his alma mater. The trailer states just as much: a scenario where someone not from a racially diverse background and who doesn’t identify as the “other” takes it upon themselves to show the right path and promote diversity. These were my initial thoughts, but my mindset started to change when I was halfway into the picture.
The film begins adequately. Ben Affleck’s character, Jack Cunningham, presents the typical everyman structure with his career as a construction worker, his relationship with his family and status as a fun uncle, and him dealing with marriage separation. He then gets a call from one of the heads of his old school to ask if he will coach his alma mater’s basketball team. Reluctantly, Cunningham accepts the position and meets the kids, only to notice that they are abysmal at the sport, with very little focus on-court and lacking any pride in their aptitude for the game. Having been a high school all-star, Jack takes immediate action by whipping the kids into shape and instilling them with the core values that team sports brings.
Ben Affleck is a triumph as a basketball coach. His fervor for winning and pushing these kids to their limit in order to be better is done extremely well, partly due to the fact that the film leaned into his acting trademarks. Coach Cunningham is not your typical faith-based, praying basketball coach. Ben Affleck plays a character who wants to win and derives joy from the heat of the game. He gets into verbal confrontations with referees, cusses on courts filled with children, and just can’t seem to contain himself when it comes to rising up to a challenge. As a sports fan, this is what you want to see, and this is particularly where Affleck shines.
Yet, credit must be given to the film’s standout supporting roles, most notably Al Madrigal and Brandon Wilson. Madrigal plays Dan, the assistant head coach and the quiet foil to Cunningham’s situation. Whilst not a reprehensible character, his part in the matter feels lived in and almost blends with complete ease with the world of the film. Wilson plays Brandon (who both share the same name) who exceeds as the docile chosen one who grows into his own and becomes the captain of the team. With such believable performances from these two, you’ll wonder whether O’Conner spent more time and care fleshing out their stories than Affleck’s personal arc.
The Way Back’s attempts to make you feel for Cunningham’s individual plight- his relationship problems, the alcoholism, and other twists– are all handled decently. Yet, they are far from the aspects of this film that standout. This is somewhat detrimental, as the film ultimately is not about his relationship with the kids or the impact he has on them, nor even their future outcomes or experiences. They are an outlet for Affleck’s character to overcome his flaws and shortcomings, which would be fine if the moments Jack shared with the kids didn’t outperform the moments he has with himself. If this film was meant to be a creative outlet and analogy for Ben Affleck’s struggles with alcohol abuse, O’Conner would do better to bring more focus and empathy for those issues, rather than the sports team storyline, despite it being one of his trademarks.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars.
In many interviews about the film, people talk about how The Way Back is a movie about second chances, regardless of what turmoils someone may have had in the past. It’s not the first film to have celebrity with alcohol issues portray a person with alcohol issues, yet this “life-imitates-art” ensemble would likely have had more impact if it wasn’t overshadowed by story issues that Affleck has difficulty embodying. Not any fault on Affleck’s ability, which is shown in other facets, but more with story decisions as a whole. It’s a great message for audiences, but if you are unable to make us care for the characters learning this lesson, then maybe try to drive home the lesson more firmly.