Not all the factors that relate to a film’s review pertain to the content. Back in March, the US release of this Ben Affleck sports movie, originally titled The Way Back, was cut short after two weeks by the cinema closures caused by the pandemic, and the film dropped from UK schedules. So it’s a welcome relief to see Gavin O’Connor’s follow-up to The Accountant finally arrive several months later; whether the current fragile truce with the virus holds or not, there’s a warm, fuzzy feeling about starting where we left off that raises the spirits, at least for a while.
Finding The Way Back is old-school Hollywood; an A-list star with a point to prove, a story about alcohol addiction that should resonate with fans, a selection of rousing clichés and well-captured sports scenes. From Slap Shot to Hoosiers, this way back is a well-worn road, but also one that Affleck and O’Connor make worth the journey. Filmed under the title The Has-Been, this is the story of Jack Cunningham, a divorced construction worker who reluctantly accepts an offer to return to his old high-school to coach their lamentable basketball team. The film starts on a note of Catholic guilt, and Jack’s trick of cooling each beer out in the freezer indicates that he’s a practiced, seasoned student of the booze. This conflict of interests, between Jack’s need to obliterate his emotions and his desire to coach the kids, bubbles up constantly through the narrative, but it’s worth noting that while Finding The Way Back cycles through clichés, it eventually takes a surprising, but foregrounded turn that renders the film more character study than rabble-rouser. The final basket-ball game isn’t even seen.
Instead, The Way Back focuses on grief and loss; like many ex-players, Jack turns to drink, having peaked to early, but it turns out that there’s a specific motivating factor in his self-destruction, and both director and star make a brave decision to skip the feel-good clichés in favour of something more thoughtful. Support from Al Madrigal and Michaela Watkins is unshowy but eloquent, but Affleck really runs the show here, his bear-like physique masking a genuine vulnerability.
Don’t get me wrong, the world of high-school basketball hold all the interest to me of cleaning out my septic tank, but The Way Back isn’t really about sports, even if the action scenes are deftly handled as you’d expect from the director of Warrior. Finding The Way Back refuses to pander or manipulate the audience, but offers up some harsh, honest truths about the difficulty of self-control and self-determination. With booze an obvious source of solace during a global pandemic, The Way Back offers a cautionary tale worth hearing.
Thanks to Warner Brothers UK for early access to this film. Live link is below.