The Way Back (2020) is a sports-drama film which contradicts a number of the genre’s typical conventions, perhaps most notably that it doesn’t feature a great deal of sport. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, and starring Ben Affleck in the central role of Jack Cunningham, the film tells the story of an alcoholic construction worker who is invited to coach his old high school’s basketball team.
Whether The Way Back is successful or not shouldn’t be determined by how well it performs at the box office. Originally set for an October 2019 release, the film was moved to March of this year to avoid having to compete with the numerous other Autumn releases, as well as hopefully benefiting from the start of U.S. college basketball’s ‘March Madness’. Following only a couple of weeks in theatres the film was moved to online platforms as a result of the social restrictions caused by the outbreak of COVID-19.
The Way Back enabled O’Connor and Affleck to reunite after working together on the 2016 action thriller The Accountant. O’Connor has a history of working in the sports-drama genre having made Miracle in 2004 (about the U.S. men’s hockey team) and 2011’s Warrior (starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as mixed martial arts fighters), which similarly to The Way Back, also prominently features the themes of alcohol abuse and fatherhood. But the main attraction here is Affleck, with the film serving as a vehicle for his often maligned acting talents. Much has been made of the parallels between Jack Cunningham’s battles with alcoholism and those of Affleck himself, who has spoken very openly about his own addictions.
Relatively few sports films have been made in recent years owing to audiences’ familiarity of the tired genre, the films of which tend to repeat the same story- typically that of the underdog fighting back against the odds. However, The Way Back only uses the high school basketball team to provide Jack’s story with a little more background context; this is really a film about a man’s struggle to overcome his pain, which he self-medicates with alcohol. Affleck gives a good performance in the central role, his imposing physicality not hindering his character’s fragility. The film generally shies away from too much sentimental cliché, which is often a trope of the genre- although there are still some cringe-inducing moments along the way. During the scenes of basketball practice and matches there are, however, some moments of genuine humour when Jack’s profanity-laden rants infringe on the Roman Catholic school’s principles. Perhaps the strongest scenes in the film are both montages: one of Jack engaging with his daily drinking routine, and another of him devising tactical basketball plays, seamlessly cross-cut with moments from the game when the tactics come to fruition.
By reducing the team’s basketball progress to a highlights montage, The Way Back keeps the well-trodden conventions of the sports drama at arm’s length. This, however, results in the high school students being two dimensional characters who do not get a chance to develop. The only character who is given much context is Brandon- the best player on the team but with no confidence- in whom Jack sees some similarities with himself and his own unloving father. The lack of attention given to the basketball narrative means that the audience cannot give much credibility to Jack’s coaching of the team, as they start to win games almost immediately but it isn’t explained why. This is perhaps most obvious when the team- without Jack present at this point- have their “let’s win this one for the coach” moment, which feels hollow as we are not convinced about their affection for him.
Ultimately, The Way Back is an entertaining, albeit slightly superficial drama, which features a strong performance from Affleck. For audiences looking for a sports fix, the basketball is quite insignificant, and quite frankly doesn’t affect Jack’s journey at all. For audiences looking for a story of redemption, it’s not completely convincing on that level either- which is strange, given the experiences that Affleck could have brought to this role.