Sunday, 19 April 2020

Film Review: The Way Back

Art isn’t just imitating life in Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, where lead actor Ben Affleck’s personal issues are unmistakably intertwined with those of his character in this compelling but formulaic sports drama.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball hero who has turned to drink since his divorce to wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). When his alma mater comes a-calling in search of a coach for its struggling and squabbling basketball squad, Jack is initially reluctant – the last thing he needs right now is to be in the spotlight.

But soon enough Jack is sitting on courtside, coaching a rabble of rowdy teens whose talent isn’t reflected by their lacklustre results. The aim is to reach the playoffs for the first time in years, forcing Jack to quash his own issues, and instead put his heart and soul into moulding young minds.

Affleck – who has been in and out rehab over the years, most notably right before making this film – is clearly wrestling with some personal demons here. He’s a million miles from the hulking beefcake who played Batman not so long ago, and is clearly drawing from something raw and real to add depth and nuance to Jack’s redemption journey. Having veered from tabloid fodder to Oscar-winning producer and back again, Affleck is no stranger to staggering comeback stories – his career has seen plenty of highs (Good Will Hunting, Argo, Gone Girl) and lows (Daredevil, Pearl Harbour, Live By Night) over the years.

The Way Back definitely belongs in the former category, as slick direction from O’Connor and a compelling performance from Affleck see the film transcend a paint-by-numbers script by Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night). Granted, most sports films often follow a strict formula, and Ingelsby is clearly colouring within those well-worn lines – from the initial ‘refusal of the call’ to the stirring midpoint montage where things start to trend upward.

All of the basketball scenes are coated in a thick layer of sweet sentimentality, complete with stirring and manipulative musical cues from Rob Simonsen. There’s passion and emotion aplenty, but it’s easy to see O’Connor and co pulling on the heartstrings like master puppeteers.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

A modest yet moving sports drama that has sadly fallen by the wayside in light of COVID-19, The Way Back sees Sad Affleck make an emotive comeback, and it’s the best thing he has put his name to in years.

The Way Back is now available in Australia via the digital video rental platform of your choice.

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