March 5, 2020

CINEMA | Ben Affleck Finds 'The Way Back' to Redemption

"The players decide the game."
Ben Affleck Janina Gavankar Gavin O'Connor | The Way Back
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director Gavin O'Connor and star Ben Affleck reteam for a very familiar inspirational underdog sports drama about redemption. Hueing closely to elements of Affleck's own personal life and history of addiction on a more working-class level, The Way Back (aka Finding the Way Back) is a thoroughly engrossing character study using coaching and high school basketball as a greater metaphor for the struggles of alcoholism.

Did you ever wonder what happened to Affleck's character, Chuckie, from Good Will Hunting after all his friends grew up and moved away? He probably turned out a lot like Jack Cunningham, a washed-up once star student athlete turned construction worker who drinks himself to sleep each night. Jack can't even muster the effort to hide his addiction as he suppresses past trauma and pain through self-medicating.

Once a promising athlete himself, Jack struggles to reign in his temper and passion as he quickly devotes himself to his team's success and, by proxy, himself. It's a standard redemptive tale with all the usual sports clich├ęs yet so well executed, it hardly matters. You care so much about what happens to Jack's team and invest in his recovery.

Janina Gavankar Ben Affleck Gavin O'Connor | The Way Back

There's some nice contrast to the casting that highlights Affleck's downtrodden but raw performance. Comedian Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, and Janina Gavankar as his assistant coach, sister, and ex-wife keep Jack in check as they worry for his well-being.

Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby's minimalist script lets O'Connor and Affleck really get into the details of the main character non-verbally through lingering long-takes and subtle interactions. We follow his daily life as he takes over coaching his Catholic high school alma mater's last place varsity basketball team.

The Way Back is a restrained yet emotional comeback for Affleck as a performer even though he never really went anywhere but has battled his own personal demons very publicly. It's such a precisely executed redemption story using classic genre beats of sports movies so perfectly.


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