Movie ReviewsThe Way Back – A Familiar Yet Memorable Path (Early Review)

Keith NoakesMarch 5, 202083/100
Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins
Brad Ingelsby
Gavin O'Connor
14A (Canada), R (United States)
Running Time
108 minutes
Release Date
March 6th, 2020
Overall Score
Rating Summary
The Way Back may be a cliche sports drama on the surface but in the end is a compelling character study led by an incredibly charismatic and raw performance by Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck has had a highly-publicized tough run as of late, struggling with alcoholism. Perhaps this is what drew the actor to The Way Back, a sports drama sharing many parallels with his own personal struggles. Maybe this was what made it just that more powerful. On the surface the film may be your run-of-the-mill sports drama, with a familiar story whose beats shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, but the power of Affleck sets is apart, That doesn’t mean that the film had nothing to offer, it just wasn’t nearly as compelling. Stories about overcoming adversity are universal themes across film so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While this will surely still appeal to many audiences, it just wasn’t overly interesting this time around despite some entertaining albeit not unexpected moments.

The Way Back follows a former high school basketball prodigy named Jack Cunningham (Affleck) who had since faced plenty of hard times and tragedy, turning to alcohol in order to cope. Falling deeper and deeper into a downward spiral, he is thrown a lifeline under the form of a vacant head coaching position at his former high school. Since Cunningham had been there last, his high school’s basketball program had also fell under hard times, underperforming at the bottom of the standings. His new merry band of misfits were of course full of personalities that may not have necessarily been compatible at first before they inevitably came together. Watching them play off of each other was kind of fun but that went away rather quickly in favor of Cunningham’s story that unsurprisingly went hand in hand with his team and his kids.

Ultimately, The Way Back works best as a devastating character study for some of the reasons mentioned above and more. Cunningham’s life certainly wasn’t easy as he was just as much of a misfit as the kids he was coaching. He was certainly not a coach but would instill in his kids the values and work ethic that made him such a great player in his hayday. The few basketball scenes themselves were full of the usual tropes, however, were still entertaining. Meanwhile over the course of the film, Cunningham’s tragic backstory and the source of his pain was revealed, slowly drifting apart from his estranged wife Angela (Gavankar). His struggle to keep his life together while avoiding to fall even deeper was engaging to watch and relatable though it certainly wasn’t easy at times. Though Cunningham’s highs and lows and the story’s eventual outcome weren’t that much of a surprise, they weren’t any less impactful.

The film may be well-shot and the score certainly brings forth plenty of emotion, however, the best part of The Way Back was ultimately the exceptional lead performance by Affleck as Cunningham. His incredibly raw and vulnerable portrayal of a damaged man living in pain was some of the best work of his career. This was a role that clearly meant a lot to him and it showed through his performance of a character that in ways echoed his own personal life. He goes to lengths unlike what we’ve seen before, pulling plenty of emotion out of the material and was truly heartbreaking to watch. Tying it all together was his great charisma and screen presence. Meanwhile, Gavankar as Angela shined in several powerful scenes with Affleck.

At the end of the day, The Way Back won’t surprise most viewers story-wise but the Ben Affleck comeback makes it well worth the watch, sports film fan or not.

*still courtesy of Warner Bros.*

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