Sports dramas aren’t nearly as prevalent in the zeitgeist as they used to be. The Way Back not only feels like a throwback to those days of old, but also proves there is still life left in this dying genre. Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck, the dynamic duo that brought audiences the highly acclaimed The Accountant, have crafted a gripping redemption story and an engaging sports drama to boot.
Our story focuses on middle-aged man named Jack (Affleck), a man who was a basketball superstar back in his high school days and has since washed out, diving head first into the dreary waters of depression and alcoholism after a personal tragedy. He’s recruited by his old high school to coach their troubled basketball team and get them back on track and he reluctantly accepts.
Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks
The tropes and cliches of the sports drama are hard to avoid, its story beats inevitably being the same film after film. However, O’Connor and Affleck are highly aware of these pitfalls and decide instead to steer into the skid while shifting the focus onto the flawed protagonist’s redemption story. This is a creative choice that highly works in the film’s favor, giving Affleck and his character an opportunity to shine and resonate.
It would be an understatement to say that Affleck is impressive in this film. Having had struggles with alcohol and marital woes in his personal life, this certainly felt like a personal role for the underrated actor to take on, but I firmly believe those personal experiences informed his portrayal in a way that makes his character feel grounded and relatable. He carries the film on his broad, slouched shoulders, propelling and enhancing each scene with a visceral and heartbreaking energy. He’s equal parts charming and powerful in the role, delivering what could easily be the best performance of his career thus far. If you’re still on the fence about his talent in front of the camera, this is the performance that should make you a believer.
The fact the film focuses so heavily on Jack’s redemption story is what helps it stand apart from standard sports drama fare. Coaching this basketball team certainly helps him on his road to recovery as he forms a symbiotic relationship with the players, but the game takes a backseat to his story. Some audiences may be disappointed to see that there is very little basketball actually shown in the film, some games completely skipped over with title cards showing the end result, but it becomes clear early on that this is Jack’s story, not the team’s. As a result, the film feels fresh and raw as it unpacks Jack’s personal issues and ultimately reveals the catalyst for his destructive behavior.
A Bumpy Road Back
The aspect of the film that I loved most was the way in which this redemption story is told. It doesn’t pull any punches and takes a far more realistic approach to showing this character grow. Jack is a fragile, highly sensitive man who clearly has a considerable amount of inner turmoil bubbling beneath his grizzled facade. As he begins to crack and slowly become more vulnerable, he tends to take one step forward and two steps back. Positive progress isn’t always consistent or easy and the film does a tremendous job showing just that as certain developments unfortunately trigger Jack into falling back into his self-destructive tendencies.
As is heavily hinted at in the trailers for the film, a personal loss is what causes Jack to fall into a pit of depression, alcoholism, and cyclical monotony. This is a loss he shares with his former wife Angela, played by Janina Gavankar. It’s the kind of loss that can easily tear couples apart so it isn’t difficult to understand why they went their separate ways. However, their scenes together are some of the most powerful in the film. There’s still palpable love and heartbreak radiating off both of them as they awkwardly try to catch up and keep things civil. Affleck and Gavankar are able to make this pair’s history feel lived in and believable. Their relationship leads to one of the best scenes in the film where Jack fully breaks down and opens up to her for the first time in years, Affleck selling every tear, voice crack, and heart-wrenching bit of honesty.
The All Too Familiar
The weakest part of the film, a genuine surprise, are the parts of it dedicated to the basketball team. All the familiar beats and tropes are on full display and O’Connor doesn’t seem to have much interest in deviating from the standard formula that made these kinds of films so successful and beloved. It becomes difficult to become invested in the players of the team and their relationship with Jack when there isn’t much attention paid to these dynamics.
We get the predictable montages of them becoming a better team and the friction between them as they go through their growing pains, but these are components we’ve seen done countless times before and to better effect. Their interactions between themselves and with Jack are certainly entertaining and engaging, but these parts of the film felt a bit too much like been there done that to truly stand out.
The Way Back: Final Thoughts
The Way Back is the atypical sports drama that focuses more on character than it does on the game. It’s a deeply affecting and moving redemption story anchored by an absolutely outstanding performance from Ben Affleck. The road to recovery isn’t smooth, it’s littered with bumps and potholes, but these setbacks and obstacles are what help us grow and mature. Nobody is perfect and even those who are especially flawed deserve a second chance at happiness and forgiveness.
This a film that not only proves this to be true, but weaves the kind of story that should inspire and motivate those who are stuck to take the first significant step forward toward their recovery and fulfillment. It’s the kind of film I wish Hollywood would make more of, but for now enjoy this rare breath of fresh air.
Have you seen The Way Back yet? If so, what did you think? If you were on the fence, do you have more of a desire to see it now? Let us know in the comment section below!
The Way Back is now in theaters in the U.S.
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