The Way Back is directed by Gavin O’Connor. It stars Ben Affleck.
Jack Cunningham was a high school basketball superstar, who seemed like he had a promising future, but he walked away from the game under mysterious circumstances. Many years later, the distraught Cunningham is an alcoholic construction worker, estranged from his family and separated from his wife. Cunningham gets an opportunity to reconnect with the game he loved as a youth when he’s offered the opportunity to coach basketball at the Catholic school he attended, but will he be able to curb his alcoholic ways, and whip the players into shape?
Inspirational sports films and dramas are nothing new, and the cliches they offer are plentiful and difficult to rise above. The Way Back is grounded by a powerful, solid performance from the always entertaining Ben Affleck, who manage to convey strong emotions and a believable character throughout the film, but he can’t rise above the cliches of the genre, and an overabundance of tertiary characters and plot elements which bog the movie down.
There are not enough good things to be said about Ben Affleck, who’s the strongest thing about The Way Back by far. While it’s difficult to go into details without spoilers, he’s a man who’s grown distant from so many people who were once a major part of his life, and who’s got his own inner demons to face. Seeing him tackle everyday life and his newfound responsibilities make for some moments which are both dramatic and comical alike. If nothing else, there’s no taking anything away from Mr. Affleck, who impresses throughout the movie’s duration.
Sadly, the movie simply tries to throw too much at the viewer. I admire it for not descending into preachy “After School Special” territory, but it still can’t quite decide what it wants to be. It attempts to juggle Cunningham’s estranged relationship with his family, his friendship with his former wife, drama pertaining to his past life, his childhood, relationships with his players and fellow coaching staff, the individual troubled lives of his players, his alcoholism, and maintaining a friendship with people from his past struggling with obstacles with their ailing son. If this sounds like a lot to take in, you’re right. Many overdone elements from the genre rear their heads, and much of this was handled better in other films. The movie’s focus is all over the place, and it’s horribly imbalanced as a result. Affleck and the supporting cast do the best they can with the material, however.
The movie also revolves around an alcoholic character and fails to use the movie to demonstrate the consequences and danger of alcoholism, eventually piling on far too much drama and unexpected obstacles in its third act, which derails the movie. Furthermore, the movie ends on a frustratingly ambiguous note, leaving too many plot threads unfinished, much to the frustration of the viewer. Ambiguous endings suit some movies, but here, it feels like a slap in the face to a viewer who’s already devoted over 100 minutes to these plot elements and characters.
The Way Back has a fantastic dramatic performance from the always entertaining Ben Affleck, but in terms of high school basketball drama, it won’t be dethroning Hoosiers as the champion (and the movie even rips off a major plot point from that film involving the status of one of the players). With Affleck’s performance, it’s at least worth renting when it hits home formats in a few months.
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of four.
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