DIRECTED BY: Gavin O’Connor
STARRING: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson, Charles Lott Jr., Will Ropp, Hayes MacArthur, Rachael Carpani, Marlene Forte, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg, Chris Bruno and Dan Lauria
Back in high school, Jack Cunningham had everything going for him. A basketball phenom, he could have punched his ticket to college or even the pros, but, instead, he chose to walk away from the game, forfeiting his future. Jack’s glory days are long gone…but, as it turns out, not forgotten. Years later, he gets the chance to take back his life when he is asked to coach the struggling basketball team at his alma mater. Jack reluctantly accepts, surprising no one more than himself, and as the boys start to come together as a team and win, he may get his last shot at redemption.
The Way Back sees director Gavin O’Connor and actor Ben Affleck collaborating once again for this sports drama written by Brad Ingelsby. We follow the story of Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic whose separated from his wife, Angela, and works as a construction worker. One day Jack gets a call from Father Devine at Catholic high school Bishop Hayes, who Jack played basketball for, and is asked to step in as the new basketball coach after the current coach suffered a heart attack. Jack reluctantly agrees and as he start to push the kids to finally start winning games, he might finally got his last chance to make his way back to a normal life.
Gavin O’Connor has make effective sports dramas in the best with Miracle and Warrior. Like the latter, The Way Back is disguised as a High School basketball drama, but it actually focuses on the journey of the main character. The character in question, Jack Cunningham, is a man that’s in a world of hurt, using alcohol as a mechanism to help bury the pain and anguish he feels and when you get to find out exactly what that is, you absolutely feel for him. It’s a very personal role for Ben Affleck to take on, giving his personal history with addiction, and I believe this is arguably his best performance to date as Jack Cunningham as he makes you feel everything the character is going through just by his facial expressions, his eyes etc. There’s one particularly emotional scene in the film that will make some viewers tear up due to his reaction alone. While Cunningham’s journey is the primary focus, the basketball drama aspect ain’t too bad either. The film does give some of the kids a chance to shine, none moreso than Brandon Wilson as Brandon Durrett, a shy kid that Jack decides to take under his wing and mentor/mould into the team’s captain. I thought Al Madrigal gave a good performance as assistant coach and maths teacher Dan, but one thing I really enjoyed was the interaction between Jack and Father Mark Whelan, mainly because Whelan has an issue with profanity on the bench and it’s primarily his facial expressions when Jack lets the profanity loose on the kids to psyche them up that had me laughing.
While it has a interesting character journey to follow in Jack Cunningham, those coming in expecting a by the numbers sports drama will see that the film follows the same beats of those that have come before it and while a few of the kids get a chance to shine, most of them you will pretty much forget their names once they’re mention as outside of the games they rarely get mentioned, let alone be seen. While I thought their performances were good, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Janina Gavankar and Michaela Watkins. While we get a brief history between Jack and this character Doc, I thought he was pretty pointless in the overall scheme of things as he only seems to exist to carry Jack home from the bar.
While not as effective as Gavin O’Connor’s previous sports drama Warrior, The Way Back is still a solid film that focuses on the journey of a man picking himself back up and rebuilding himself after a period of suffering. While the ensemble are fine in their roles, it’s Ben Affleck’s lead performance that will receive all the plaudits as he’s absolutely terrific here in what’s arguably his best performance to date.