The Way Back isn’t really the basketball movie the trailers make it out to be. On its surface the trailers create the the expectation is that this prototypical sports film. The standard sports movie formula with the down on his luck coach, who against his will ends up coaching a team desperate for help and guidance, and both the team and the coach ultimately grow and heal through their time together. The Way Back avoids the pitfalls of that formula and produces a film that is flawed and imperfect, but succeeds in creating a emotionally gripping film that any traditional sports film would struggle to achieve.
Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star that has fallen into alcohol addiction due to several personal tragedies. This is Affleck’s best performance in years stands out because he makes sure you always that Jack Cunningham is more than his addiction and at his core is a person that’s worth saving. And his worth shows in who he is when he’s coaching. Affleck’s Cunningham is a fiery coach who might be a little too demanding, but always ready to fight for his players.
I recently told a friend who’s a talented actress that her most recent performance was stellar because even though I know her, during her performance I became so invested in her character, I no longer saw her, only the character she was portraying. Affleck’s performance is stellar for the opposite reason. Affleck has made no secret of his own personal struggle with alcoholism and you can’t help but awed at his willingness to incorporate his own personal struggle into his performance. It’s an act of artist courage that’s rare in contemporary films and makes The Way Back something unique.
The film’s strength and weakness is its unrelenting focus on Cunningham. The other characters in the film aren’t given the space or the character development to really allow viewers to understand or be invested in them. Cunningham’s wife, his sister and nephew and niece, the players themselves, no other character seems to matter, as they all exist to service the story and don’t seem to have The (Ben Affleck) path from alcohol addiction to recovery. Learning more about how Jack’s behavior affects the people who care about him really would have added something that’s missing from this film.
Lastly while basketball isn’t the central focus of the movie, The Way Back excels when it focuses on the sport. The attention to detail in Cunningham’s approach for transforming the team is entirely believable and watching him fight for his players and guiding them as young men is the bright spot in fairly serious film.
The Way Back doesn’t conclude with a perfect ending which serves to enhance the film. In real life the roads we travel to transcend our demons isn’t an easy or pain free process, but what makes it worthwhile is promise something better is on the other side. Ultimately the film succeeds because it mimics real life in giving an imperfect ending that allows Cunningham to realistically grow and heal.