The Way Back: Movie Review

ben-affleck-the-way-backThe Way Back is a 2020 film directed by Gavin O’Connor starring Ben Affleck. On the one hand, it’s the classic American sport movie. On the other hand, it has elements that makes it stand out from the indistinct mass of films in which a person who lost confidence in herself starts coaching a terrible team and after some ups and downs everyone wins in the end. The Way Back is that kind of story, but not everything goes as you might expect.

Here’s the plot. Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a promising young basketball player, but he stopped playing when he was 18 years old and all his dreams of success vanished. He is now an alcoholic separated from his wife who works on construction sites by day and gets drunk in a pub with friends in the evening. He is called by Father Devine (John Aylward) to lead the basketball team of his Catholic institute, Bishop Hayes, and he grudgingly accepts. But then he changes and transforms what was the worst team in the league into a team capable of going to the playoffs and winning them as well. And this is the predictable and unoriginal part of the film.

The most surprising part is that Jack gets sacked right before he gets to the playoffs for his drinking problems, so he doesn’t live the team’s triumph. And he doesn’t even get back with his wife (Janina Gavankar), which in a standard Hollywood movie would have certainly happened. However, Jack wins a battle: he agrees to enter an alcohol rehab clinic with the help of his sister (Michaela Watkins) and after many years he also restarts playing basketball, in a very hopeful ending with him in the court facing a splendid sunset.

I can perfectly understand you if you think that this sounds uninteresting. After all, this is the classic hero journey as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: we meet the hero in his daily life, the hero is given a mission (to lead the team), the hero is confronted with death (that of a friend’s son who reminds him of his own son’s death), the hero wins (with the winning team and by entering the clinic). Nothing new.

But the film does many things well. Above all, it realistically depicts the daily life of an alcoholic: for example, take the fridge full of beers + sofa situation and add the endless cycle of beer from fridge to freezer and beer from freezer to mouth. Add to that the daily beer during the morning shower, alcohol in the coffee thermos at work… Plus, since Ben Affleck is actually having serious issues with alcohol, he’s the perfect actor for the part, he really is believable! The family relationships of the protagonist and the type of friends he frequents are also written in a way that maximizes the credibility of the story, which is paired with a cinematography that used real lights most of the time, I think (in the interiors, sometimes it’s hard to see the protagonists illuminated only by normal house lights).

On the other hand, the story of the young basketball players is mostly forgettable. Only Brandon (Brandon Wilson) stands out of the group, and he also gets a happy ending with his father finally going to see him play. Everyone else in the team remains very much in the background of the movie. In short, The Way Back is not an exceptional film, but I would still recommend it for some of its well-thought elements which elevate a plot that offers little new compared to the rest of the movies of its genre. Ciao!

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