The Way Back (2020) Review

A FAMILIAR, YET POIGNANT SPORTS DRAMA


 

Sports movies are a “dime a dozen”, but have plenty to offer in the way of entertaining and enticing viewers within their respective narratives. These particular types of motion pictures focus on a sport / sporting event and athlete / team that participate in said event for significant degree in their personal journey of resolution and / or plot directional motivation. In addition, these movie (usually) utilizes the sport themed as a sort of framework; interjecting ideals and themes that weave together tried and true methods of storytelling, including underdog narratives and poignant moments in history (i.e. social and racial importance). Thus, while the sports film genre is indeed a bit formulaic, the actual enjoyment of these endeavors has a certain appeal…. not just from sports fans, but in also in mass appeal of movie entertainment (i.e. everyone loves an underdog tale). Hollywood has had plenty of memorable sports themed movies, including Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Rudy, Warrior, Seabiscuit, Rocky, The Legend of Bagger Vance, A League of Their Own, and many others that have had definitely shared these particular attributes in speaking to the audience with the thrills of “the game” as well as providing plenty of good character drama. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures and director Gavin O’Connor present the latest sports drama with the movie The Way Back. Does the film “find its way” to cinematic appeal or does it lost within its sports themed tropes?

THE STORY


Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is struggling with his life; working construction jobs to pay the bills, while he spends his free-time drinking his sorrows in alcohol and becoming isolated from those who love him. Once, he was married to Angela (Janina Gavankar), but their union suddenly broke from an unforeseen trauma, leaving Jack in a destructive cycle of loneliness and depression he can’t break out of. Approached by his old school to coach their struggling basketball team, Jack confronts his history as a star player from his days on the court, facing a group of youthful and dysfunctional teens who are in desperate need of leadership, only Jack is unsure if he can provide it in his current state. Managing his excessive drinking with professional duties as a coach, Jack beings to take the team seriously, sharing his experience with the kids as they start to more focused on the talents as individuals and as a team. As the team becomes more of a unit, playing better and win games, Jack wrestles with his reminder of a life that was; filling the wayward man with regret and sadness.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As I mentioned above, sports movies are quite “commonplace” within the yearly releases of theatrical motion pictures and have certainly cemented themselves as “crowd pleaser” amongst many. Why? Well, it can be for many reasons. It could be for the whole “love of the game”, with the movie centrally focusing on a particular sport and showcasing the classic nuances of the game in ways of technical maneuvers, plays, and importance (i.e. high school, college, professional, etc.). Another aspect could be liking the whole “underdog” tale of which many films certainly do portray their central characters (be it one individual or a whole team). Personally, I like sports movies for a combination of those two aspects and I think many do as well. Sports themed movies have a certain type of formulaic nature (to a certain degree), but its usually the mixture of sports drama, which can vary to diversity to underdogs tale, with the character-built drama that has compelling appeal to it concoction. Movies like Remember the Titans, Rocky, Rudy, Raging Bull, and Warrior are some of my personal favorites of the genre. Whatever the case may be, sports feature films are definitely fun and entertaining to watch.

This, of course, brings me back to talking about The Way Back, a 2020 sports drama feature that mixes basketball with character drama. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first announced. I vaguely remember hearing that Ben Affleck was gonna be doing a sports drama movie and that he was going to headlining the movie in its lead role. My actual first “look” at the film was when the film’s movie trailer was released, which (judging from the trailer alone) looked pretty good…a bit familiar, but still looking promising. Plus, it said that director Gavin O’Connor was directing, which did pique my interest due to how much I love the film Warrior. With several advance reviews praising the movie, most notable with Affleck’s performance, I was a bit eager to see The Way Back, which I did during the film’s opening weekend. And what did I think of it? It was actually pretty good. While it’s nothing drastically different from similar character sports drama, The Way Back is still a solid feature that has plenty of heart and soul within its cinematic tale; delving into deep character-based drama that’s grounded in heartfelt realism. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel of sports genre, but rather (under O’Connor’s direction) reinforces it.

The Way Back is directed by Gavin O’Connor, whose previous directorial works include such films like Miracle, The Accountant, and Warrior. Given the palpable success that he had with Miracle and Warrior (with much praise), O’Connor seems like a suitable choice to craft another sport themed feature, with The Way Back acting as a wholehearted extension of those films. Approaching the film, O’Connor takes what he’s learned from his other sports themed movies (as well as other common elements in the sports drama arena) and shapes The Way Back to be both a familiar endeavor and one that plays the film’s entertainment strength. The story of The Way Back is (beyond the shadow of a doubt) is very formulaic, which is both a curse and a blessing (i.e. a double edge sword), but O’Connor seems to embrace those ideas, including a reluctant individual that gets stuck coaching a team that’s a band of scrappy misfits, troublesome woes that several undertake, and a lead up “big game” in several points. That being said, O’Connor takes the tropes as an advantage and weaves a narrative that’s, more or less, weaves a narrative fundamentally works as a character drama first and foremost. Interestingly, like many sports dramas out there, the actual sport being played could’ve been easily switched out for another, but the idea of the character’s main journey is the more palpable interest, with O’Connor carving a very meaningful character arc for Jack Cunningham’s plight, which adds plenty of sensibility and gravitas to the proceedings.

That’s not to say that the movie is completely devoid of sports drama, with the basketball drama providing plenty of classic nuances in the feature, but the personal journey of Jack’s problems takes centerstage for a great majority of the film. There might be a few moments of melodrama territory that O’Connor steps into, but its one that feels quite appropriate and needed for such a cinematic journey. Additionally, the movie’s themes are quite engaging and poignant; expressing the destructive nature of substance abuse, isolation from loved ones, and not overcome past trauma. These themes are universal to everyone and certainly do have a lasting impression on the film’s characters as well as the film itself; highlighting such a humanistic and realistic tale of redemption and forgiveness. Additionally, O’Connor has quite the “deft hand” in staging plenty of character drama as well as executing many of the basketball games in a way that are both grounded in realism and importance. All in all, whatever may come about this movie, O’Connor is perhaps the best choice and (besides Affleck’s performance) in the undertaking The Way Back.

In terms of presentation, The Way Back is a solid drama within its look and appeal. Of course, a movie like this doesn’t focus on lavishing set pieces and visually stunning backdrops / locales, but that doesn’t mean that the setting places a part in the feature. Like all background pieces of the motion picture, the setting is a subtle character unto its own, with The Way Back having a mixed feeling within much of the locations ranging from worn-down city outskirts to small suburbs locales. Nothing is quite glamorous or hyper really (fantastical looking and / or sleek), which adds a grimy realism to the film’s various sets and locations as well as lending credence to the palpable nature of the film’s narrative. Thus, several of the “behind the scenes” key individuals on the film, including Bradley Rubin (art direction), Douglas A. Mowat (set decorations), and Cindy Evans (costumes) should be mentioned for their efforts made in the movie’s presentation. Plus, the film’s score, which was composed by Rob Simonsen, is quite touching, with plenty of tender / sweet pieces that really do play up the film’s intended scenes of heartfelt drama, including a reoccurring piano composition that plays throughout the movie.

Despite the positives that the feature holds, The Way Back does have a few areas that the film can’t overcome: holding the movie back from reaching its full potential. For starters, the one big flaw is that the movie is quite familiar. As mentioned above, sports feature films have the same type of genetic make-up, with a few tweaks changed here and there (usually the sport that’s being played). The Way Back is no different, with O’Connor framing the feature in the stereotypical narrative one could easy find in other similar projects. Thus, its quite simple to see where the movie’s direction is heading and where it will ultimately end up. On the whole, what’s told in the film is quite good and can be somewhat overlooked, but, if you’ve seeing any sports drama in the past few years (or even one of O’Connor’s previous installments), you’ll know where the story heads and concludes. Thus, the formulaic predictable nature of The Way Back is indeed there. It just simply depends on how you preceptive the tried and true formula of the sports underdog narrative to fully enjoy the feature. Going into this movie, I kind of figured it was gonna be like that, so it was detrimentally to view experience of the feature. That being said, I did kind of want a little bit something new in a few areas.

In addition, the movie does struggle a few times within the sports drama aspect. This is a combination of both the O’Connor direction and the film’s script, which was penned by him and Brad Ingelsby. In the direction aspect, the movie doesn’t seem to focus that heavily on the basketball nuances as much as I was expecting the movie to be, with O’Connor shedding more light on lead character Jack Cunningham (and the journey he goes through) and not so much on the drama of the high school basketball team. Of course, there are major highlights and pivotal scenes that surround the basketball team that Jack coaches, but not as much as what I was expecting. The same goes with the script, with many of the heavier dialogue moments focusing on the inner turmoil and not so much anyone else. Thus, many of the film’s supporting characters (mainly the students that make up the basketball team) sort of get sidelined for majority of the film, which is a bit disappointing as both the film and the script kind of sets up several characters to be important and left dangling at the end.

Speaking of the ending, The Way Back’s ending is a bit wonky. What’s presented is nice, but it feels a bit incomplete as if the film’s true ending was left on the cutting room floor; cutting off the last five or so minutes off to save on the feature’s runtime. When I saw the movie and the credits begin to roll, I felt like “that was it?”; scratching my head and expecting to see something a little bit more conclusive. I just was waiting for a scene or two to happen (to end on) and it never happened, which was disappointing (one of my biggest gripes about the film).

The cast in The Way Back is solid, with most (if not all) the acting talents involved bringing a certain level of quality to the feature’s narrative and never underselling or overacting their respective characters persona and / or equally sum parts that the movie calls for. Headlining the feature (and who does certainly shine the best on the project) is actor Ben Affleck in the lead role of Jack Cunningham. Affleck, known for his roles in The Town, Argo, and Gone Girl, has indeed become quite a powerhouse star in Hollywood, with his acting skills in many lead roles as well as directing several feature films. Thus, the actor has come across his hardships in real-life; battling his own personal demons. Thus, stepping into such a character as Jack Cunningham, a man who is dealing with past trauma and drowning out his own misery with alcohol substance abuse and isolation, is quite the reflection of his personal life. Thus, it’s crystal clear that Affleck is channeling his personal demons into his performance of Jack, which really does credence and emotional weight in his role. It’s easy to see that Affleck pours his heart and soul into the role of playing Jack, showing the weakness, brashness, and overall destructive nature of a man who has lost his way, which is both beautiful and sad at the same time. And yet, Affleck’s skill as an actor is a testament to the role, with seasoned actor never “overselling” Jack’s flaw nor underplaying the traumatic nature of the character’s life. To me, what Affleck captures within Jack is truly a brave thing to do, especially since media has criticized Affleck’s personal struggles in various outlets. So, it’s truly great to see him turn himself around (both in the real life and in the character) to deliver such a palpable and powerful character drama performance. In the end, no matter what you think about this movie (good or bad), no one can deny that Ben Affleck is the true MVP star in The Way Back with his full-engaging performance.

Strong supporting players in the movie such as actress Janina Gavankar (The League and Morning Show) as Jack’s ex-wife, Angela, actress Michela Watkins (The Unicorn and Causal) as Jack’s sister, Beth, and actor Al Madrigal (Night School and I’m Dying Up Here) as assistant coach Dan, are equally good and definitely bolster Affleck’s Jack throughout much of the film, which certainly does strengthen the journey that his character undergoes, especially in many of the interactions he was with these individuals respectfully.

Unfortunately, the characters that make-up the Bishop Hayes basketball team, including actor Da’Vinchi (Grown-ish and All American) as Devon Childress, actor Melvin Gregg (American Vandal and Snowfall) as Marcus Parrish, actor Lukas Gage (T@gged and Euphoria) as Eddie, actor Will Ropp (Silk Road and Dauntless: The Battle of Midway) as Kenny Dawes, actor Charles Lott Jr. (Extra Credit and Modern Family) as Chubbs Hendricks, actor Brandon Wilson (Set Apart and Little Monk) as Brandon, and a few others, don’t the credit that they deserve in a movie like this. From what its worth, each of them do give their solid performances as rambunctious and youthful high school teens, but that’s simply it. The movie never goes deep enough for us (the viewers) to get to know these characters beyond their initial setup. To me, this is one of the weaker elements of the feature.

The rest of the cast, including actor Hayes MacArthur (Super Troopers 2 and She’s Out of My League) as Eric, actor Matthew Glave (The Wedding Singer and Argo) as Coach Lombardo, actor Glynn Turnman (Gremlins and Super 8) as Doc, actor Jeremy Radin (Shark Week and The New World) as Father Mark Whelan, make up the minor supporting players in the movie. While these particular individuals are more “cogs in the machine” (i.e. feeling in a part of the story / narrative), these acting talents still provide to bring good character performance within the time that they are allotted in the film.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Wrestling with grief and alcohol substance abuse, Jack Cunningham tries to find solace within his life in coaching a high school basketball team in the movie The Way Back. Director Gavin O’Connor latest film takes the familiar tropes of the sports drama aspect and spins them so the film is still able to make an impact on both its characters as well as us (the viewers). While the movie does struggle to break the conventional nature of sport drama flicks as well as abrupt ending and mismanagement of a few characters, the movie still retains plenty of palpable heart and fundamental soothing drama, thanks to O’Connor’s direction and Affleck’s incredible solid performance. To me, I liked this movie. Despite its commonplace tropes and some of its flaws, O’Connor still manages to pull off a comforting and entertainment drama feature that works on a very emotional and humanistic level. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “recommended”, especially if enjoy sports themed movies as well as O’Connor’s previous works (Miracle and Warrior). Altogether, while the movie doesn’t distractedly change / upset the status quo of sport drama nor is it the definitive sports themed movie of all time, The Way Back is a testament to one man’s journey to finding his way back from a life of sorrow and self-destruction; reflecting both life and art at the same time respectfully.

3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: March 6th, 2020
Reviewed On: March 12th, 2020

The Way Back  is 108 minutes long is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references

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