The Way Back Review: Affleck and O’Connor create an instant crowd by breaking past genre cliches
Sports movies hold a strong place in place in my heart. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for a good comeback/underdog story? Maybe it’s because I was an athlete myself or that I’m such a sports fan? Either way, it’s easy for me to look past some of the major clichés of sports dramas and films like Coach Carter, Gridiron Gang, and Rudy are always films I stop and watch whenever I see it on TV.
Being no stranger to sports drama’s himself, Gavin O’Connor, director of Miracle and Warrior, re-teams with Ben Affleck after a mediocre outing with The Accountant for The Way Back and the two re-invent the genre formula to deliver a more personal story of struggle.
The film follows Jack Cunningham (Affleck), who has become consumed by self-hatred, alcoholism, and grief as a tragic loss sends him in a downward spiral. His relationship with his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) has completely dissolved and his glory days of being high school basketball phenom is just a part of his fading past. However, when he gets the opportunity to coach basketball at his alma mater, Jack begins to turn his life around as he turns the team’s luck around. When his old ways catch up to him as he reexperiences grief, Jack struggles to keep his toxic behavior from resurfacing and it could hinder the team’s success.
Where The Way Back sets itself apart from other formulaic sports dramas is the legitimate heart and effort put into creating a story not about a failing basketball team, but rather a failing man. Most films tend to focus on the players’ issues and how the coach helps them through tough love and good-hearted monologue, but that’s clearly not O’Connor’s intentions. Rather, he fleshes out a very effective and heartfelt story of pain, grief, and addiction that stems from Jack’s broken life. From the toxic relationship that Jack has with his father that made him turn away from basketball entirely to the tragic loss that essentially destroys his life, it’s hard not to find yourself invested in his journey to recovering. Just as every step forward is legitimately feels heartwarming, every step backward is just as heartbreaking and the writing from O’Connor and fellow writer Brad Ingelsby is incredibly effective in showing Jack’s rough road to recovery.
Affleck also elevates all the strong writing behind Jack’s story as he delivers one of the rawest and most emotionally driven performances of his career. He perfectly makes you feel all the pain that grows within Jack with every swig of beer he drinks and how all the broken parts of his life have left him an emotional mess. Even in the moments where Jack is forced into something that should come off cliché, Affleck makes it genuine. The motivational speeches he makes and the heartbreak he has in rediscovering his grief really tugs at your heart. Affleck also fits perfectly to O’Connor’s concept of Jack not being a perfect saint like most of his coaching counterparts in the genre, and seeing his growth be tied to the team’s makes The Way Back an all-around motivating experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong, The Way Back still contains plenty of cliché moments with its young players. The team Jack coaches pretty much is made up of your usual cast of characters for this kind of movie – a quiet kid, a ladies man, a class clown, a rebel who is kicked off and then comes back with a better attitude, and a bunch of no-names. Honestly, when the film is focused with what’s happening on the court, things aren’t as interesting. However, there are some great comedic moments with these stereotypes that make Jack’s relationship with them more engaging. From Jack hilariously punishing Kenny’s (Will Ropp) ladies man way to a little lesson in cursing when Marcus (Melvin Gregg) wants to come back to the team, there’s a lot of great moments that help viewers look past their cliché nature.
Even some of the shots O’Connor implements come off a little too familiar and the overuse of shaky, slow close-ups is very distracting. Even for its familiarity though, this film still looks great and the sound design of fans cheering really immerses viewers into the environment. The first game against the school’s rival looks incredible with a sullen Jack standing center as the rival fans cheer in the background and the choreography isn’t too flashy.
The Way Back eludes most of its clichés by offering viewers a more personal story that O’Connor and Affleck absolutely thrive in. It’s certainly an easy crowd-pleaser that anyone can get behind just like any underdog story, but it’s also filled with heart as it creates an empathetic story of grief that a solid emotional rollercoaster.