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The Way Back (A Movie Review)


Starring Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, da'Vinchi, Hayes MacArthur, Rachael Carpani, Todd Stashwick, Inka Kytö, T.K. Carter, Glynn Turman, Marlene Forte, Melvin Gregg, Lukas Gage, Caleb Thomas, Jeremy Ratchford, Al Madrigal, Chris Bruno, Yeniffer Behrens, Will Ropp, Christine Horn and Dan Lauria.

Screenplay by Brad Ingelsby.

Directed by Gavin O'Connor.

Distributed by 101 Studios. 108 minutes. Rated R.

There has been a tried and true formula in sports movies over the years. A troubled coach – often with alcohol or personal problems – gets a last chance at redemption by shaping young minds. He takes over a team with little or no talent, and over the weeks and months turns these scrappy underdogs into winners. Eventually, they face the first team which humiliated them as equals, with the championship on the line.

The Way Back both embraces these clichés and chafes against them at the same time. For one thing, The Way Back is much more somber than most of these films, which tend to embrace the comic aspects of the situation. There is little or no laughter or sunshine in this film.

Also, this film changes the formula by making the coach the full focus of the film. The kids who play for Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) are there, but an afterthought. The games are so unimportant that sometimes they don’t even bother with any highlights, just posting the final score on screen. Whether the kids lose or win – and you know just by the formula that eventually they will start to win – reflects on the coach, not on the players.

In fact, few if any of the boys who play for him are allowed any depth or nuance. They are all types – the quiet kid who is secretly a terrific player, the vain star who puts himself before the team, the white kid with surprising moves (who they actually refer to as the White Shadow, which I assume is a reference to the old TV series, a better piece of entertainment about high school basketball in a lower-class neighborhood), the token Latinx kid, a bunch of other generic kids who get a line or two each. You get the picture.

However, the fact that The Way Back does not slavishly follow the sports film formula is somewhat refreshing. Whether the team wins the final big game or not is not all that big a deal as far as the film is concerned. They are more interested in where the coach ends up.

The fact that Jack is such a huge part of the film makes it kind of a shame that the lead character isn’t particularly sympathetic or likable. He’s supposed to be a massive alcoholic, angry, bitter, unable to follow the rules at his religious high school, always cursing, prompting the players to play dirty, starting fights, etc.

However, my biggest problem about The Way Back was simply this, I never for a second bought into his drinking problem – which is only the main focus of the film.

Early on, we are introduced to his problem when we watch him in a single night empty out his refrigerator, which is full of beer, finishing off at least 20 to 30 cans over a matter of a few hours. And this is after he had earlier had some beers and shots in a local bar with some buddies.

The dude shouldn’t have been able to stand, much less function.

However, the next morning he gets up and functions normally – no hangover, no sickness, no fuzzy head, no flop sweat, no light sensitivity, no mangling of his speech, no stench of alcohol emanating from him. In fact, that next morning he is perfectly fine, well enough to have a meeting which becomes a job interview – with a priest, no less – and he raises no red flags. He speaks normally. He acts normally. No problems here.

Then, later, after drinking ravenously for much of the first act of the film, Jack is admonished by one of his co-workers – rather timidly at that – about finding beer cans in his office, and Coach goes completely cold turkey. No withdrawal, no PTs, no slip ups, no urge to drink. It’s like he had never tried alcohol before, or at least like he could turn it off like a light switch.

Then, after he has seemingly straightened himself out, gotten a job he loved, somewhat mended fences with his estranged ex-wife and family, and turned the team into winners, one slight thing – the death of a kid he barely even knew – knocks him right back off the wagon.

Suddenly, after months in which it seems he didn’t even crave alcohol a bit, he is even worse off than he had been in the first place, to the point where his friends, co-workers, and the priest can’t continue to look the other way.

There are apparently reasons for his anti-sociality and alcoholism – though the main one is dropped with little warning like a hand grenade into the middle of the screenplay. And, it turns out, that what happened to him was tragic and could potentially drive a guy to drink and to disenfranchise his family and tank his career.

Does he learn anything from his experiences, grow, find a better course for his life? Maybe. It seems like he might have. Then again, something big (or small) could go wrong and knock his life completely off course yet again. Nothing we have seen really makes us feel strongly one way or another.

The filmmakers seem to have hope, but leave things a bit ambiguous, too. So, The Way Back leaves the audience unsure – to use a metaphor from a different sport – if the guy is swimming or treading water. It’s hard to work up much compassion for a guy who may or may not be learning from his mistakes, even when life offers him a do-over. And it’s hard to get all that invested with a movie that can’t decide what it thinks about that same guy.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: March 5, 2020.

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