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THE WAY BACK (2020) review

June 3, 2020

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written by: Brad Ingelsby
produced by: Gordon Gray, Jennifer Todd, Gavin O’Connor & Ravi Mehta
directed by: Gavin O’Connor
rated: Rated R (for language throughout including some sexual references)
runtime: 108 min.
U.S. release date: March 6, 2020
Blu-ray release date: May 19, 2020

 

Not a remake of “The Way Back” from 2010 and not a prequel to 2013’s “The Way Way Back”, Gavin O’Connor’s “The Way Back” reteams with actor Ben Affleck (after their thriller “The Accountant”) for “The Way Back”. On the outside, it looks like another underdog sports drama, but it has more on its mind than the tropes of that subgenre, thanks to Brad Ingelsby’s effective screenplay and probably the best performance from Affleck since “Changing Lanes”. Like the best sports movies you can think of, the movie succeeds in primarily focusing on characters over the highs and lows of competitive athletics. “The Way Back” may not go on to become a classic, but it definitely should be recognized as a movie that takes a serious look at potent and relatable themes in a rare introspective manner.

Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is a barely functional alcoholic living alone in a Los Angeles neighborhood, working a construction job by day and stumbling out of the local bar by night. He used to be married to Angela (Janina Gavankar) and back in the day he was a high school basketball star with a promising future. No one would know any of that by looking at this lonely and depressed middle-aged figure who’s brooding profile tries to mask a simmering self-loathing.

 

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During Thanksgiving with his sister Beth’s (Michaela Watkins) family, genuine concern is voiced for Jack’s well-being, yet his dismissive knee-jerk reaction is one of defensiveness that denies his addiction. The next day he receives a call from Father Devine (John Aylward), who still resides at Jack’s alma matter, Bishop Hayes, and is offered a head coach position of the Catholic school’s struggling basketball team. Jack reluctantly accepts the job, despite his own doubts and struggles, and soon finds himself dealing with a team of boys who could really use some experienced guidance and direction. Eventually seeing potential in the teens and realizing this could be a constructive distraction from his destructive ways, Jack begins to turn his players into an aggressive team who make their way into the playoffs. However, Jack still has to reckon with the way in which he has dealt with the pain from his past before he can truly embrace a different future.

There are certain expectations typically found in underdog sports dramas and while they are present in “The Way Back”, there movie does an impressive job at not only focusing on characters, but dealing with some heavy subjects such as addiction, grief and loss. Ingelsby and O’Connor (no stranger to inspiring sports stories, having helmed “Miracle”) tell the story in such a way that will have viewers forgetting about any familiar tropes (both in the sports genre and how alcoholism has been portrayed on screen) and instead leaning in a little closer as we learn how and why Affleck’s Jack got to be where he is in such a way that feels real and authentic. It’s all quite rare to see if you consider any preconceived notions going into such a movie.

What ultimately makes a movie involving a high school boy’s basketball team succeed is the cast portraying the players and “The Way Back” lucked out with this lineup of young actors. We’re introduced to these characters as their new coach meets them and what we first see on the outside is some typically teen boy behavior. There’s Marcus (Melvin Gregg) the cocky center who could use a lesson in humility, there’s smooth Kenny (Will Ropp) who’s preoccupied with girls on the side lines, and introverted point guard Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who could possibly be the best player on the team, given the right amount of encouragement and guidance. Sure, these three characters feel familiar, but how they interact with their troubled coach is intriguing to watch.

 

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As the saying goes, “children are always watching” and it becomes obvious to these boys that Jack has some issues. It’s not just his frequent potty mouth on the court – which is concerning to the helpful assistant coach, Dan (a great turn by Al Madrigal) the school’s algebra teacher and the team chaplain (Jeremy Radin), who is there to provide a source of integrity and faith for the boys – but they can easily pick up on Jack’s often erratic emotional and physical state. The team predictably begins to improve and win games they never would’ve dreamed of before on their way to the playoffs, making it obvious how Jack has helped the boys. Unfortunately, Jack still hasn’t dealt with what’s been going on inside, despite how focusing on helping these boys has given him something positive to focus on.

“The Way Back” could’ve ended on a momentous note after a victorious game, but the choice to ground the story in the aforementioned reality and authenticity thankfully subverts any viewer expectations. It’s a reminder that the alcoholism storyline benefits from the basketball storyline and how impressive it is to see the filmmakers and the actors balance the two throughout the movie.

It’s hard enough for a movie like “The Way Back” (which feels like an unlikely amalgam of “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Hoosiers”) to have a fair chance of doing well in the climate for theatrical releases in recent years that aren’t part of some type of big-budget blockbusters, but for it to be released in the States right as the COVID-19 pandemic was rearing its ugly head all but killed its chance at a fair shake. At least the blu-ray release will hopefully give the movie a chance to be seen by more eyes. Even those who have no general interest in sports will benefit from watching this surprisingly complex and nuanced story.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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You can hear me talk about “The Way Back” with Ian Simmons on the Kicking the Seat podcast here!

 

 

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