The Way Back (2020)
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Rad Ingelsby
Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, and Janina Gavankar
Plot: A depressed, alcoholic man starts to get his life back together by coaching a high school basketball team.
Review: The Way Back took me by surprise. From the advertisements, I expected a more or less straight sports flick. It’d probably one we’ve heard a million times before. There’s a small town basketball team that’s not very good. They get a new unorthodox coach. He’s a bit tough around the edges, so they don’t like him all that much. They started winning as he earns their respect. Cut. Print. Send out to theaters. Start writing the next one. However, those are not this movie’s intentions at all. This is a relatively gritty, real look at an alcoholic and how hard it is for him to turn his life around. And, overall, it’s pretty good.
I really have to give it up to the writer, Brad Inglesby. He crafted quite the character here. The Way Back feels very real in the sense that you are rooting for a very flawed human being. He feels like a real person, who, by the end of the movie, you end up knowing really well. While he may seem like a jerk at first, we start to unravel layer after layer in a really organic way. A lesser movie would either have flashbacks or someone on screen that would explain why we should like this guy through his tragic backstory. The Way Back has the story unfold naturally and we learn information in a way that feels organic. It honestly feels very real, like when you first meet someone and then slowly get to know they’re past just from being around them. That made the heartbreaking situations that were revealed even that much more effective.
Of course, you can’t give too much praise to a character without also mentioning the guy who played him. This might be my favorite Ben Affleck performance, other than maybe Gone Girl. He’s fantastic here. You can tell that this was a very personal movie for him. He’s struggled with this kind of stuff before. It very much feels like he’s baring his soul to us. His character isn’t super chatty, but we can always tell exactly how he’s feeling in every moment. And we understand why this is such a struggle for him. You can just see the years of sadness and regret in his expressions. It’s truly heartbreaking stuff. I love seeing Affleck in this serious actor mode. It’s where I like him best.
Like I said, The Way Back marketing tricked me. I thought I was seeing a high school sports movie. I wasn’t expecting a deep character study on an alcoholic. And, while I did really end up liking that aspect, I do wish they’d focused on the team a bit more. There is some good basketball stuff. However, it feels like its just in there to get you in the same mindset as Affleck’s character. I thought that was a shame. I really liked the team. I wanted to see more of them. There’s a montage about halfway through the movie that covers several games that just had me thinking “Man, I wish we could see those games.” I get that it wasn’t really the point of the movie. But, you easily could’ve added a half hour of basketball stuff, while still keeping a reasonable runtime. Personally, I think it would’ve made the movie better and the message even more powerful. It’s still quite good for what it is though.
TL;DR: The Way Back is a very good character study on an alcholic on his road to recovery, featuring one of the stronger performance by Ben Affleck.
Score: 7/10 (Good)