THE WAY BACK

Published On March 5, 2020 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

“THE WAY BACK”
​Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson, Hayes MacArthur, Rachael Carpani, Marlene Forte, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg, Charles Lott, Jr., Chris Bruno, T. K. Carter
Written by Brad Ingelsby
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Produced by Gordon Gray, Jennifer Todd, Gavin O’Connor, Ravi Mehta
Cinematography by Eduard Grau
Edited by David Rosenbloom
Music by Rob Simonsen

“The Way Back” is excellent, a highly-recommended drama, the best film of 2020 so far, a straightforward, tough, real and engrossing drama about the demons in life that affect all of us, particular the demons of alcoholism, addiction and depression, and a film in which Ben Affleck delivers a bravura, brave, powerful and stand-out performance.

It’s important to note that “The Way Back” includes a sports story as part of its tale–but “The Way Back” is not a traditional, cliched, feel-good, sentimental sports movie on any level. “The Way Back” is a gritty, hardened, down-to-earth, reality-based, bittersweet, grounded, unsentimental, heavily dramatic drama about the realities of life, the realities of people and their inner demons, the basic overriding difficulties of life in general, the infuriating complexities of family and personal relationships, the struggles and horrors and demons of addiction and alcoholism as noted, the pain of dealing with tragic loss, finding oneself despite the very worst that life throws at people, redemption, finding the way back, and finding some way to simply survive in a difficult, tragic world.

That–all of that–is what “The Way Back” it all about. The movie uses sports, a sports team and coaching as plot symbols and devices to explore these deeper, heavier themes, and the analogies are apt, appropriate and meaningful–but they are never fake, false, phony, overly sentimental or cliched.

All of these writing, dialogue, story, plot, backstory, story development, plot development, character development and subplot accomplishments in this film are testaments to superior writing, an insightful understanding of the human condition, an insightful understanding of people in general, and an understanding of how life’s tragedies can have such severe, devastating, long-lasting impacts on people, their abilities to cope, and peoples’ complicated, rollercoaster relationships with each other. To write a script and a story that is able to ably reach these levels of understanding with such compassion, grace, insight and intelligence is, again, a high achievement, and congrats indeed to screenwriter Brad Ingelsby for reaching these heights and depths of understanding.

Kudos and congrats to everyone else, cast and crew, who worked on this film, too, because it certainly must not have been easy to get through some of the intensely personal, dramatic and emotional scenes in the movie. But don’t be put off by that–these scenes are engrossing, smart, insightful, as noted, and they also manage to remain entertaining on a filmic level. Ingelsby and director Gavin O’Connor remember that despite the heaviness, the film must have some moments of humor, lightheartedness and optimism to balance things out–it’s not all doom and gloom in life, of course–and those lighter, sunnier, more positive and even funnier moments are there in “The Way Back,” providing the proper balance and giving the movie, the story and the characters some hope and reason for living even amid the worst that life throws at you.

Ben Affleck delivers an incredibly strong, focused, intense performance, and he is ably supported by an equally strong cast. Ingelsby, O’Connor and the crew deserve credit for presenting a movie that plays as real and grounded in real life as a movie can be and still remain engrossing and entertaining. Everyone in the cast keeps their acting, their presence and their focus entirely grounded in real life, and this just adds to the realism of the film.

In the movie, Affleck plays down-on-his-luck Jack Cunningham, a construction worker separated from his wife after they lost their young, pre-teen son to a medical ailment. Jack and his wife struggle with their relationship, living apart, trying to work out their grief, trying to repair or at least keep their relationship on any level, trying to work through their sadness, and just trying to maintain some level of contact and connection. It’s not easy, and it’s easy to understand their difficulty–what on earth could be more devastating to a husband and wife than losing a young child? Concurrently, Jack struggles with alcoholism and anger issues–drinking himself to a stumbling, embarrassing stupor most nights of the week, stopping at the neighborhood bar nearly every night, and having to be walked home by caring, sympathetic friends on a regular basis. Meanwhile, he’s also trying to repair, fix and maintain equally strained relationships with his sister and family. Life’s not easy for Jack.

Then, abruptly, out of nowhere, the leaders of Jack’s Catholic high school alma mater–where Jack was a star basketball player in the early ’90s, leading his team to championships and being courted by universities offering him a shot at playing college basketball–approach Jack about taking over the head coaching duties of the school’s current sad sack varsity basketball team. Jack, now middle-aged and just a little creaky–initially refuses–he hadn’t touched a basketball since his high school days–but something inside of him, a hint of the true humanity that exists somewhere inside him, rises to the forefront of his brain and his heart, and he soon agrees to take over the coaching job.

The subsequent scenes where Jack faces, deals with, yells at, disciplines and generally interacts with the undisciplined, rag-tag group of basketball players on a most real, street level are funny, lighthearted–and filled with pure fun, emotion and true coming-of-age character development–for Jack, his novice assistant coaches and the kids. Everyone seems to be learning something from everyone else, and the pure joy and exuberance of the smart, tough basketball practice and game dialogue, scenes and action sequences just burst off of the screen. You can feel the very real, very true emotion that everyone was feeling on this set–the basketball scenes are blocked, marked, choreographed and filmed so well, it’s just pure excitement. However, as noted, Ingelsby and O’Connor are not making that Disneyesque cliched sentimental routine sports movie–this is an R-rated, real-life-rooted drama with a sport story providing the forward movement. Thus, those fun basketball scenes also include plenty of Jack Cunningham’s unrestrained, uncontrolled, wholly inappropriate alcohol-, stress- and anger-fueled fury, outbursts, rage–and obscenity-laden rants. The lesson is that, with folks like Jack struggling with so many demons in life, even the best of times can be brought down to concurrently being the worst of times. And with that, the overriding lesson rears its brutal head that Jack, and folks like Jack, need to do all they can wherever and whenever they can to tame, restrain and override those demons before they completely destroy or kill you.

Thus, there are requisite, positive scenes of Jack–who is talented in basketball, who does know and understand basketball and who is indeed a great coach who does indeed whip these kids into a hardened, fighting, tough–and actually good–basketball team–actually winning with his team, and subsequently winning with the school, the school leaders, the community and the local sports and basketball worlds. For a brief, shining moment in time, Jack Cunningham becomes his community’s local sports hero–once again! For a time, all is going great.

But this movie is not about cookie-cutter, formulaic happy endings–to its credit. Soon enough, Jack’s demons cause the worst of times to creep ahead and override those best of times. Soon enough, Jack’s drinking, temper, rage, anger–and alcoholism and addiction–cause his brief reign of heroism to crash and burn, prompting Jack to once again seek to find his way back. And that’s not giving anything away–all of this is worth noting, because the ups and downs of the movie mirror the very real ups and downs of life, of alcoholism, of addiction, of pain, of grief, and of attempts at redemption in life. To see Jack crash and burn is to understand that life is not a succession of happy endings, but of all types of beginnings, middles and ending happy and sad moments–that’s real life, indeed.

Thus, to follow Jack after his basketball victories, subsequent life defeats and further attempts at bringing himself back to life and society is revelatory. Affleck somehow makes this sad, depressed, angry, addictive conundrum of contradictions of a person sympathetic, despite his negative tendencies. Affleck keeps Cunningham grounded amid the worst outbursts, and there’s always some semblance of insight amid his rage–angry, irritating insight, but insight nevertheless. Thus, Affleck allows a bit of humanistic sympathy to emerge and appear in Cunningham, as he must. For the charcacter–and the movie–to work, the audience must care about Jack to some degrees, and, again, Affleck maintains some level of inherent likeability. Thus, the audience actually cares about Jack, the audience sympathizes with Jack–and, yes, the audience wants to see Jack find his way back.

The supporting cast, including Al Madrigal as Dan, one of the high school’s math teachers who helps out as an earnest and caring assistant coach, and the beautiful, captivating Janina Gavankar as Jack’s separated wife Angela, remain as real, down-to-earth and rooted in reality as Affleck’s Jack. O’Connor’s direction and Ingelsby’s script keep the dialogue real and the performances real. No one overacts, and no one stomps around the set delivering corny, overdone monologues or speeches that no one in real life would ever really deliver. There’s no corny locker room pep talk; instead, Jack yells and curses right in his players’ faces, to their alternating surprise and respect. There’s no nice-guy sideline complaints with the refs; instead, Jack storms onto the court and cusses out the refs right in front of everyone, holding nothing back. There’s no gray area regarding Jack’s alcoholism–he drinks during the day, he drinks at night, he drinks to ease his pain and escape from life. And there’s no nice-guy helicoptering between Jack and the kids during practice and outside of school–Jack talks directly with his players, not down to them, not at them, but with them, slowly and surely earning and gaining their respect and admiration. The talented kids who play the basketball players are alternately endearing, touching, sympathetic and inspiring–they steal their scenes to great delight, and they are a hoot to watch in this movie. They can also play some basketball!

“The Way Back” offers scores of lessons–and alarms and warnings and red flags–about alcoholism and addiction, and, to its credit, the movie does not flinch or hold back from the very worst that these demons can inflict on people and everyone’s lives. The domino affect of alcoholism and addiction on relationships, marriages, family ties, work, play, recreation, health, finances, and many other factors in life are shown directly–and, again, it’s a credit to Ingelsby’s smart script and O’Connor’s straightforward direction that these problems, symptoms and aspects are shown in stark black and white, with no gray areas. Alcoholism and addiction are serious, severe problems in society–every society the world over–and they affect everyone. Everyone. No one anywhere is immune from the problems of alcoholism and addiction. Alcoholism is a disease, yes, but it is a disease that must not go untreated. The movie shows how absolutely horrible, terrifying and dangerous alcoholism and addiction are–and if this movie prompts one intervention in real life, it wouldn’t be surprising. And how anyone would want to continue drinking heavily after watching this film is a mystery. So if you see yourself or someone you know in the character of Jack Cunningham–say something, do something, help that person out before true tragedy strikes in your own real life. This simple lesson is implied in “The Way Back”–much to the movie’s credit. So in addition to all of its stellar filmic qualities, the movie also provides an important public service in warning about the far-reaching dangers of alcoholism and addiction.

In the end, it’s not giving anything away or spoiling anything to note that Jack Cunningham works hard through everything he endures to indeed learn that he must, that he will, find redemption, repair the rough patches of his life–and find his way back. It’s important to note that while “The Way Back” is a drama, with elements of sports drama and humor throughout, this movie is definitely not a tragedy, and the ending, climax and final act do indeed offer some hope, positivity, optimism–and, yes, that long-sought-after redemption. It’s important to note this because at the end of this movie, walking out of the theater, filmgoers will feel that sense of hope, and that’s important, always, but especially in these tough times. To walk out of a gritty, life-is-tough, reality-based drama that contains so many heavy themes with a sense of hope is a testament to the fact that, often, yes, there can be redemption and a bit of a happy ending to some parts of life.

To provide some element of hope that each of us can learn something, or many things, about life from revelatory experiences–like Jack coaching the basketball team at his alma mater–or from going through various experiences and learning the importance of conquering our demons, such as alcoholism, rage, extreme sadness, addiction or other ailments, is to provide a needed, welcome ray of sunshine in a sometimes-dark world. And that is exactly what “The Way Back” provides: the hope that we can find redemption, and, ultimately, the way back. That’s a great lesson and emotion to carry forward, and for that, we should be thankful for “The Way Back.”

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