Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins and Janina Gavankar
The Way Back opens with Ben Affleck’s character in high-vis, working on a construction site. It’s been 23 years since Good Will Hunting (1997), but this could be Chuckie, the character Affleck played in that film, only much more burly and weather beaten. Burly and weather beaten men are somewhat of a characteristic motif in Gavin O’Connor’s films, his cage-fighter film, Warrior (2011), starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton springs immediately to mind.
This isn’t Chuckie, but Jack Cunningham, who in the mid-nineties (also Chuckie’s pomp) was a star basketball player. Addiction and personal tragedy have derailed his once bright future. He now finds solace at his local dive bar, or in the two dozen cans of beer he rhythmically (almost ritualistically) flows through, presumably each night. The Way Back is a story of addiction and redemption. Jack gets a call from his from high school’s headmaster- he wants Jack to coach the team. Anybody who has watched a basketball film knows where this goes, it is not interesting.
What is interesting is that Gavin O’Connor somehow manages to find pockets of inspiration within a film that should be as formulaic as they come. This is thanks in no small part to Affleck’s intense and vulnerable performance. Affleck has made public his long standing addiction problems and this film feels like a cathartic role for him. O’Connor is trying to strike a balance in a script that is part addiction drama, part sports film. The former is far more engaging but too much time has to be spent on the latter to investigate the real consequences of addiction, a place Affleck clearly wants to go with his performance.
That’s not to say there isn’t merit in the sports drama side of this filmic coin flip. Sometimes effective filmmaking will make you feel something despite yourself. There is nothing quite like rooting for the underdog. This visceral feeling is elicited by Rob Simonsen’s well placed score pushing to the surface, the emotion within. O’Connor does his best to flesh out the young basketball players, their characters are thinly written in the script. There is humour to be found in the film. Jack is a little too rough around the edge for the basketball teams Pastor (it’s a Catholic high-school) who disapproves of Jack’s wilful use of imaginative expletives in the heat of the moment.
The Way Back (or Finding the Way Back in certain regions of the world) doesn’t turn out to be as pedestrian as its title suggests. A clichéd script is saved by some ingenuity from O’Connor and a career high, committed performance from Affleck.