“The Way Back” will tug on viewers’ heartstrings with an untraditional underdog story.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor, the film follows ex-basketball-superstar-turned-alcoholic Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) as faces the challenge of coaching the basketball team he played on years ago. Inexperienced with coaching, Jack aims to build the poor-performing team in both basketball skill and moral character.
It is immediately established in the opening scene that Jack binge drinks continuously during his daily activities and obligations. By watching an unexpected and heavy opening, the viewer immediately learns about Jack as a character. The severity of his addiction prompts the viewer to wonder how this situation came to be.
Once Jack accepts the position as head basketball coach at Bishop Hayes High School, the film’s focus shifts to fulfill the classic underdog movie trope. The team isn’t the most skilled and hasn’t been since Jack led them to playoffs in his high school days. However, Jack becomes a mentor for these young men, building their character while improving his own.
Although this underdog trope is somewhat cliché, the movie fulfills it in a way that does not feel cheesy or predictable. The film mixes in serious topics, such as loss and addiction, and paints them in a candid light that makes the film feel more real than scripted.
The honesty of the way issues are presented make them more impactful. These issues are seen with an uncensored and unromanticized view that makes the viewer sympathize with Jack, but not enough to forget his mistakes. It is admirable to see the uphill battle that Jack goes through to get help.
The writing allows the film to fulfill the typical underdog trope, showing the uphill battle of an untalented team. It has feel-good scenes that easily tug on heartstrings, making the viewer attached to the team. However, the film strays from the genre by diving deep into issues that this genre doesn’t typically touch.
Affleck’s performance is incredibly convincing and well-communicated. Affleck himself said he struggled with addiction on and off since 2001 in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Affleck’s relationship with the players on the team is heartfelt, making it look like he could have truly been a basketball coach in another life.
The journey the team goes through is so intense and real that it can sometimes feel like a documentary. The shaky, hand-held filming technique was distracting, and the random zoom that was present in dramatic situations was jarring and unnecessary. If the vision was to make this film into a mockumentary-style story, it was not executed well enough to have a large impact on the audience in a positive way. The camerawork also makes it feel like a documentary-style film. However, it was executed so poorly that the film would have been better off without it.
Overall, “The Way Back” offers a real-life twist on the typical underdog sports movie, but does not successfully portray it well technically.
Rating: 3.5 out 5 stars