Released: 5th March
Seen: 2nd September
Ahh, the sports movie. I love a good sportsball movie, I love it. I know all about the sportsball with… the passing and… uh… throwing a ball? OK so I know exactly jack shit about sports and the balls that are used to play them but fortunately sports movies never need you to actually understand the game because they’re never actually about the game. They’re about the scrappy underdog team who starts at the bottom and works their way up the top and the question is always if we’re focussing on the team itself or on the coach of the team and maybe one team member that the coach identifies with. Details may change, like the sportsball game being played or how many times someone yells an obscenity but in general they are all the same and The Way Back is not about to break that pattern, but it does offer a good version of that story.
The Way Back takes the route of focussing on the Coach, Jack (Ben Affleck) who is an alcoholic construction worker who used to be really good with the basketball and now is just sad and drunk a lot so naturally he gets a job as the coach for a high school basketball team that hasn’t been doing that great. After making some tough cuts, seeing the potential in some of their forgotten players and delivering some tough love he fights to get their team through to the playoffs and even help one of them get noticed by recruiters for a college basketball team. While doing all this he also must deal with his alcoholism which becomes particularly heavy when he sees someone else grieving.
So, The Way Back definitely plays on a lot of things that are very common in sports films like this. Indeed you could say it plays with every single standard idea that one might put in a sports movie, down to the last minute “we have a plan on how to win this but screw the plan, do what you do best” moment that every film like this seems almost contractually bound to have. There is no real new element to the story here, you can almost call all the big moments long before they happen The closest thing we have to a new element is that the big emotional ending of the film, or at least what would normally be the emotional ending (“Will the team win in the end?”) is the end of act two and the third act is where the alcoholism plot takes the lead and becomes the new climax.
What makes The Way Back function is a genuinely incredible performance by Affleck who just put his all into every single scene, he manages to deliver a performance that makes you want to watch the entire film and see if his character can turn his life around. It’s a tough role to portray since his character is so incredibly unlikeable but you still want to root for him to improve as a person and Affleck does that. He carries the entire film, to the point where he is more important to the narrative than the team that he’s coaching who are basically warm bodies to throw a ball around and give Affleck someone to yell at.
The Way Back is not trying to be anything too deep, there’s not much here to go in deep about anyway. It’s just about a bunch of kids playing basketball and their coach gets them to be better while he’s just barely hanging on himself. It’s perfunctory at best but it still works. Sure, you’ve seen this film before told this way with this same structure, but this film still manages to pull some emotion out and never goes all the way into just being bland about its repetitiveness. I’ve seen it before, but I don’t mind seeing it again with this lead and looking this good. It’s just taken all the good bits of what others have done and thrown that out there, it won’t change the world but it’ll be a good time for a few hours.