“The Way Back” (2020) Movie Review
The Way Back was directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, The Accountant) from a script by Brad Ingelsby, and stars Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenomenon, who gave up on the sport after realizing that his father loved what he could do more than he loved his son. Jack is also a very broken, deeply hurting man; burned by his past, he began to take up drinking, and eventually became a struggling alcoholic in the wake of a life-changing event. When his alma mater suffers the loss of their basketball coach due to a heart attack, Jack is called over by a local Father (the school is Catholic), and asked to take a job as the team’s new head coach. Reluctant to accept, Jack takes a look at the team (as well as their pitiful season record), and decides he’ll step in to help, if only to give himself something else to do besides drink himself to death. But Jack’s alcoholism, as well as his past trauma, threaten to close in on him, ruining all that he’s worked for, and his best shot yet at redemption. It will be up to him, and the bonds he forms with his players, to make sure Jack stays on track, and becomes the man everyone around him always knew he could be. This movie also stars Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Will Ropp, Melvin Gregg, Ben Irving, Jeremy Radin, and John Aylward.
Ben Affleck has almost always come with a bit of an asterisk, especially during and after his stint as Batman in the critically-reviled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the unbelievable flop of 2018’s Justice League (no, we’re not having the ‘Snyder Cut’ conversation here). Having been in and out a rehab a number of times, and frequently in the press for personal issues (including alcoholism), his reputation’s shadow is almost larger than his reputation itself, having come up out of almost nowhere with co-writer Matt Damon on Good Will Hunting, with both men turning into phenomenon in the film industry practically overnight. Affleck would go on to direct hits like Gone Baby Gone, The Town and 2012 Best Picture winner Argo, while Damon starred in such films as the Bourne trilogy, The Martian, and most recently, Ford v Ferrari. Yet while Matt Damon’s career has had a long history of great to not-so-great films, just as Affleck’s has, his name hasn’t carried as much weight – as far as extra baggage – as this movie’s star. And while Gavin O’Connor doesn’t have any baggage that we know of, and thus doesn’t quite factor into that sort of conversation, his movies have been more miss than hit, apart from a few great ones like Warrior or Miracle. Maybe that’s what makes it so refreshing to see both he and Affleck find some sort of redemption with this film, which may not be any sort of sports masterpiece, but its easily some of the best work to date from both artists, and likely the best for Affleck in front of the camera.
It’s tough to describe what exactly the plot of The Way Back actually is without thinking of Affleck’s personal life directly alongside it, but the way the film channels his real-life struggles through a narrative about overcoming adversity through sports (while not exactly a new or very original concept) might have been the smartest way to deal with them. I’m unsure if it’s entirely appropriate for Affleck to put himself so thoroughly through the ringer in terms of playing a role that reflects his own struggles in life so clearly, but regardless, the kind of emotional honesty on display from him here is astounding. To play this sort of role at this point in his career is nothing short of brave for the star, and you can really feel his connection to the material with every line, every moment he’s on screen. This truly is his best performance to date, and as one watches this movie, it seems as if he has finally begun to heal from his own past pain. Seeing this through the eyes of a character is moving enough, but with Affleck, that asterisk becomes a mirror, and as we watch Jack grow and develop relationships with the boys on the basketball team, we also see Affleck processing his struggles in real time. Having been an actor for 10+ years, I can tell you that the very nature of acting is in a vulnerable honesty, a willingness to let the darkest and occasionally most damning parts of oneself be brought to light, and combining that with true-to-life struggles can be dangerous if not handled properly. Here, it seems as if Affleck has become okay again, and while that is an impressive thing to witness, what it does more than impress is cause you to want to celebrate it. So here’s to you, Ben Affleck (but we still do have to talk about the rest of the movie, too).
All the other performances are excellent as well, but special attention must be paid to those of Janina Gavankar, Brandon Wilson, Melvin Gregg, and Jeremy Radin. Gavankar plays Affleck’s ex in the film, and the level of vulnerability she brings to the table balances out Affleck’s more emotional moments by allowing him to anchor himself somewhere he might not have otherwise had. Her calm and largely even-tempered demeanor is never mistaken for complacency, her resolve never taken for apathy. At many points throughout the film, she’s asked to play notes that the average person would never be able to recover from experiencing, and the way that she composes this lovely symphony of emotional honesty behind her eyes is something special to witness. Wilson and Gregg, too, get to show off some of their more vulnerable sides in their own side stories about how much basketball means to them, and how their families react to that meaning. These sections, script-wise, aren’t quite as well-explored as one might like, but what’s there is nuanced, and feels more real than a lot of other approaches to the material might have given them credit for.
The scene-stealing role, though, belongs to Jeremy Radin. He’s not in the movie a lot, but when he’s there, he’s all there. Radin brings a tongue-in-cheek humor to even the most serious of dialogue exchanges, but never lets his naturally comedic charisma get in the way of when he actually needs to deliver some more emotionally-charged lines. I’m not sure if he’s been in much else as far as narrative features are concerned (he does do a lot of live television), but after seeing what he’s capable of in this, he definitely should be from now on.
The Way Back is not exactly a perfect movie by any stretch, and truth be told, the story itself (at least the parts not concerning Ben Affleck’s character) could have used a little more nuance, but it is one of the more perfect versions of exactly the kind of movie it’s trying to be that I’ve seen in quite some time. Your mileage may vary on how much you connect to the sports aspect of the film, but in terms of exploring human brokenness and the road to recovery, it would be difficult to find a more vulnerable film concerning the subject so far this year. The hand-held style of camerawork brings a lot of raw authenticity to the story, the largely new cast all turn in excellent work (securing long futures in this industry, if they choose to continue on in it), and as far as his performance is concerned, this is, without a doubt, Ben Affleck’s best work to date.
I’m giving “The Way Back” (2020) an 8.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.