Sports comeback stories tend to follow a pretty predictable formula. A down-on-their-luck former athlete ends up coaching a pathetic team and both players and coach end up learning from each other and becoming better off for it. It’s a story that’s been told countless times and yet it remains one of the most appreciated cliché narratives in film. The idea of sports being a tool of redemption is a popular idea that resonates with American audiences specifically especially given the relevance of sports in our culture. A new film, “The Way Back”, serves as the first sports movie of the 2020s and, once again, embraces the same cliche concept in an attempt to make an impact of its own. Ben Affleck play an alcoholic who finds redemption coaching his former high school’s failing basketball team into a championship caliber squad in a story critics seem to love, but does it find a way to stand out in its crowded subgenre? Let’s take a look and find out in my review of “The Way Back”.
As I said “The Way Back” is a very familiar idea: deadbeat coach meets a team of underdogs and together they overcome their personal obstacles to thrive on the field or court. The first thing I looked for in this movie was any sign of originality. Does it take one of the few repetitive story clichés we all seem to just accept and do anything new with it? The answer: not really, no. But that doesn’t make it bad. “The Way Back” is pretty standard showing us paths to redemption for both the kids and the coach although unlike many past films the focus is much more heavily centered on the coach than the athletes. The students serve more as the catalyst for change in the coach’s life and not the other way around. It’s a nice touch but, again, not anything we haven’t seen before. Still, it does feel fresh and engaging in the context of this particular story.
The best aspect of “The Way Back” is by far Ben Affleck. The title of the film is fitting not only in the context of the film but Affleck’s life and career as the performer known better for his producer and director successes than for quality acting turns in one of his career best. He plays Jack Cunningham, a former basketball prodigy who turned to drugs and alcohol partly as a screw-you to his father and later as the result of a family tragedy, with a genuine sense of understanding and raw emotion than makes you believe he understands what Jack has gone through. Jack is given the chance to lead his former high school’s basketball program and over time begins to appreciate his life more by leading the kids to become a better team, but he remains dogged by his demons which creep up on him time and time again. While I have my problems with how this character is handled (more on that in a minute) the way Affleck portrays Jack clearly channels some of Affleck’s own real-life struggles into the character making for a believable and heartbreaking display. It’s proof that the actor is much more talented than naysayers tend to believe and that he has the capability of losing himself in a role like many other greats in the industry. I just wish his performance was complimented by more subtlety from a storytelling perspective.
What threw me off about “The Way Back” is how hard the movie tries to make you feel for Jack and understand his illnesses. A lot of times it tries way to hard to hammer home that this man is an alcoholic and a cynic. One example is a literal fridge filled with beer that Cunningham drinks all in one night to force feed us that this man has personality problems and an addiction. As powerful as that might be to some it actually had me giggling and saying under my breath “okay, we get it the guy is an alcoholic. Talk about overkill”. The thing is the movie didn’t need to do this. Affleck does fine all on his own. His performance alone is enough to sell us on Jack’s need for redemption. The added bar scenes and drinking montages feel more like heavy handed padding to drive home the characters’ personality without creative writing. I could almost forgive this is there was some correlation to the students, such as maybe Cunningham’s alcoholism personally effecting a student who deals with the same thing at home. But we barely get any real context cluing us in to who the students are and only two or three get any real development at all. The personal stories we do see of the athletes end up feeling like the film is rolling with the motions and inserting must haves into the story rather than exploring the relationship or similarities between coach and athlete which, in my opinion, could have made for a more relatable film. There one major detail of Jack’s life that is saved as a major whammy in the movie to explain his cynicism and the filmmakers could have totally used this to make his relationship with teenagers in need of guidance that much more important to his redemption. But they don’t, they just kind of ignore it and make basketball and mentorship of the students more of an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.
And that brings me to my biggest problem with the film: it doesn’t really feel like much is ever happening. Jack’s personal journey could have easily made for a great film on its own without the sports element but the idea of coaching a team could have also been a nice touch to help drive his story. Unfortunately neither story ever fully embraces the other and thus it does, at times, feel like we’re watching to narratives forcefully melded together. I can respect that the filmmakers decided to use a sports story to try and drive home Jacks’ redemption but they don’t really use it properly and so the movie feels confused as to what it wants to be and, at times, even lost as to which narrative is more important. We only see small snippets of each game and the ones we do see more of are the same tired clichés this kind of movie usually brings to the table such as the “unbeatable team with an asshole coach”. When we see Jack by himself it’s also the same cliches as he talks with his ex wife and spends time chugging beers at a bar. This, for me, caused “The Way Back’s” comeback story to feel wooden with only Affleck’s performance really selling the core of the narrative. “The Way Back” still manages to be both an affecting personal drama and inspiring sports story but it seldom finds a good enough balance to be both at the same time and thus could have been so much more as two different movies instead of one okay film.
“The Way Back” didn’t impress me. If it weren’t for Ben Affleck’s raw and impressive showcase of a damaged man finding his way back this would easily have become a generic comeback sports story lost in the shuffle. As it is it’s barely better than many of its predecessors doing just enough to leave an immediate impact that lasts after the credits roll but not enough to stand above many of its more well handled predecessors. “The Way Back” is really more a comeback story for Ben Affleck’s career than it is a true standout sports film and from that perspective it’s worth the viewing just to experience one of the actor’s best performances to date. I won’t really remember this film by the end of the year but there are elements in the story that I think a lot of people will appreciate more than me and those who enjoy these comeback sports movies will certainly find plenty to enjoy as it hits all the required notes. “The Way Back” is fine in its own way and some will find it truly inspiring but others like myself might find a little too familiar and filled with too many wasted opportunities to let it off the hook.