The underdog sports story is a subgenre with a storied history that ranges from Rocky to Hoosiers to even Cool Runnings. It’s a tried and true formula because the bond with the audience is already there. Every one of us can recall a moment when a team plays better than the sum of its parts and manages to upset the contenders. The plot doesn’t change much, but if you feel a connection to the people onscreen, it doesn’t matter. What makes The Way Back different is that the comeback story of a rag-tag high school basketball team is only the foreground of the film. Gavin O’Connor, who directed Miracle and Warrior, has proven he can make a riveting sports drama, but this time out, he’s focused on a character piece.
Like Hoosiers and other films before it, The Way Back finds a head coach newly tasked with restoring a down-on-its-luck school to former glory. The coach in question always has issues, but he mostly solves those problems offscreen while the team turns its losing ways around on the court. O’Connor wants audiences to see what Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) does in-between games.
Ben is Back
Jack was a basketball phenom at Bishop High, good enough to earn a full-ride scholarship to Kansas, but a troubled relationship with his father drove him to throw it all away. Decades later, Jack’s still solving his problems with his father by drinking, and the loss of his wife has led further down the bottle. The opportunity to coach at his old school is a lifeline, but one that comes with necessary adjustments. He can’t rage his way to making this group of kids better. Natural talent and an unhealthy work ethic drove Jack to All-American status, and the inability for them to make it click perplexes him. As a representative of a parochial school, Jack’s salty language is also a problem. The transition occurs (because it must) and Bishop High starts winning games.
As victories pile up, Jack faces the demons that haunted him as a youth, like heavy expectations and the feeling that people only care when you win. Mileage will vary with some of the familiar sports clichés, but Affleck’s committed portrayal as Jack will keep viewers engaged even as the story progresses predictably. Jack is deeply empathetic, a man learning to express himself again, trying to break through the atrophy of numbing himself with alcohol for years. Affleck’s performance resists the stunt acting of being drunk in favor of a humane, honest depiction of addiction as a physical breakdown. In what has been a rough couple of years for Ben Affleck, it must’ve been cathartic to strain recent difficulties through his character. After his well-publicized departure from Batman, The Way Back is a welcome reminder that Ben Affleck is capable of greatness with the right material.
A Sports Drama for Adults
The Way Back is sentimental but never saccharine, and it goes to lengths to show the lingering effects of familial hardships on the characters. The Way Back is a Ben Affleck vehicle first and foremost and he makes the most out of the opportunity. While basketball aficionados will be disappointed that more of the film doesn’t take place on the court, moviegoers should still appreciate a rich portrayal from an actor we haven’t gotten to appreciate in a while.
The Way Back opens in theatres March 6.