The Stream: A too schmaltzy melodrama with more than its fair share of cliches
The Big Screen: A rousing basketball-underdog story with an inspirational Ben Affleck performance
The Final Bill: A mash-up melodrama/sports flick that is less than the sum of its parts-Trip Fontaine
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writers: Brad Ingelsby (screenplay), Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins | See full cast & crew »
Rating: R (Strong language throughout)
Genre: Drama, Sport
Runtime: 1 hour and 42 minutes
Notable Trailers: The Secret: Dare to Dream, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Free Guy, A Quiet Place Part II, The Hunt, Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet
The best underdog sports flicks have the same trajectories. There is a rag-tag group that can barely hold it together as a team. They’re just losers. Think The Mighty Ducks. Then, some catalyst comes to turn it around. Maybe that’s a new coach. Think Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks. They struggle at first, but they gradually gain traction and shine as the comeback kids. Think… The Mighty Ducks, I guess. Finally, they make the championship game and their tenacity pays off in the end. Think, spoiler alert, The Mighty Ducks. Most movies of this genre mine this plot for crowd-pleasing gold. Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back starring Ben Affleck doesn’t quite do the same because it’s more than just a sports flick, and that might be its problem.
The Way Back is actually a melodrama about alcoholic Jack Cunningham, former high school basketball star, who gets the call from his old high school to coach its losing basketball team. Jack struggles with personal demons while trying to revive his floundering alma mater. O’Connor and Affleck pour their soul and attention into Jack’s story of redemption, leaving the sports team’s storyline as an afterthought of Jack’s addiction and recovery.
Fortunately, The Way Back features a good performance by Ben Affleck. His commitment and earnestness depicting Jack’s alcoholism is remarkable, especially considering his own personal history. There’s depth that seems to come specifically from Affleck playing this role. The explanation behind how Jack got to this point is less convincing than Affleck’s performance – that’s a place where the screenplay lets the film down. Affleck is the standout, and no one else in the cast really makes much of an impression – except maybe one or two of the basketball players. The melodrama isn’t as emotional as it wants to be and the schmaltzy music does not help.
At certain points, the high school basketball movie inserts itself in Jack Cunningham’s story. It’s entertaining. Everyone loves an underdog story, and this one is no less satisfying. It is a thin storyline that could have been its own movie, itself, with a little more focus. The Way Back isn’t interested in that though, and that is unfortunate. Ultimately, the movie has two strong components that don’t add up to much together. The character study about the alcoholic and the sports flick about the high school basketball team never really coalesce into a worthy film experience.
Let The Way Back play in the background when it premieres on some streaming advice. Maybe add it to a sports movie marathon with Remember the Titans, Sandlot, Miracle, and A League of Their Own. It, however, is not essential to be viewed in a theater. Be safe out there.
S2S: Thanks, Trip. I think you hit the nail on the head but, as a former athlete, I give this Ben Affleck acting and the melodrama a little more credit. In fact, I was more interested in the pain and addiction aspects of a former athlete struggling with adult-ing than the story about reviving the basketball program. Jack’s story, drinking and relations with the kids made this movie worth the matinee money. This movie resonated with me personally and I’m sure it will for others that have struggled with similar issues and pains.