The Way Back

The Way Back ★★★½

Thanks to a stupendously sincere script and Ben Affleck’s honorable honesty in the lead role, The Way Back (mostly) avoids stereotypes of the “sports film” genre and delivers a distinguished dissection of one man’s dissolution underneath the crushing weight of alcoholism and unresolved trauma.

Just when Ben Affleck seems to hit a high, another low has proven to be right around the corner; the goodwill gained off his Oscar win for co-writing Good Will Hunting was dashed after flopping both critically and commercially with Gigli and Jersey Girl, and his additional awards success 15 years later with Argo was abolished after taking on an ill-fated opportunity to play Batman in the widely rejected Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. After suffering through this continuous cycle of stumble after success and dealing with plentiful personal problems (including his own struggles with alcoholism), Affleck returns in a role that feels largely inspired by - if not directly related to - his own turmoils and turns in his best work to date. As the self-sabotaging former basketball star and current construction worker Jack Cunningham, Affleck plays the part with audacious authenticity, straying away from “addiction drama” cliches and strengthening his performance with a specificity that only one who has endured these same struggles could convey. It’s a powerfully painful and pure performance, and without a doubt, Affleck’s introspective and internalized work should not be forgotten by the time we approach awards season.

The film does try to tackle a lot of tough thematic material, and it mostly does a good job at keeping track of all these story threads, even if a few get shortchanged in the end for Jack’s central character arc. The Way Back isn’t a traditional “sports coach and his team” tale, as we don’t always even get to see the games in question, and we only really get to form a personal connection with one player in particular (Brandon Wilson’s Brandon, whose intriguing innocence and captivating charm make him a surefire standout, hands down). Nonetheless, the film’s focus on the way that Jack is influenced by these kids proves to be potently poignant; his brief time as a coach is essential to his ultimate road to recovery, and even if it can’t last forever, we understand why it left such a positive impact, and that is definitely due to the admirable acting on display and the strength of Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay.

The Way Back stuffs a lot of subject matter into its 108 minute runtime, but its unabashedly sincere spirit soars regardless, and the emotional effect of Ben Affleck’s lead performance keeps the entire effort afloat from the first to final frame.

2020 Ranked

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