This March you are invited to witness the story of a basketball coach with dark issues and a tragic backstory mentor a smart-mouthed team of children who discover their collective inner strength and reach victory! No, this isn’t Mighty Ducks (too many F-bombs) and it isn’t Coach Carter (not enough sass)—it’s the Ben Affleck-led sports drama The Way Back, a slow, sad, cliché-stuffed tale of a broken man who reckons coaching high school sports can lead to personal redemption.
For all its flaws, Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is consistently honest in his portrayal of alcoholism. The most resonant scenes have to do with the loved ones addressing his drinking; he lashes out, makes excuses and dismisses every serious discussion with believability as his ex-wife (Blindspotting’s Janina Gavankar) brings extra weight to her scenes with Affleck. Elsewhere, however, the team suffers from a lack of development despite well-cast young actors. They’re not given much to work with other than talking a little smack and receiving Jack’s tutelage. Worse, they’re all stereotypes, including the gifted leader, the ladies’ man and the misguided dude who just needs a second chance.
Director Gavin O’Connor, who previously helmed such rousing sports films as Miracle and the unusually powerful MMA tale Warrior, brings none of the energy from his past works to The Way Back. We do see flashes of greatness through his intimate work with Affleck, but O’Connor saves little else for the other players. An uncommon fourth act arrives, and that, too, drags on as if writer Brad Ingelsby had kneecapped the feature so he could smash generic sports-flick drama together with a feint jab at dark character study. Are we going to watch Affleck drink gin out of a coffee container, or is he going to give the troubled kid a ride home and life advice? Both! The whole film suffers.
The path to wellness for many is a long, hard road, and films with the courage to approach such issues deserve to be recognized—but at what cost? Sports dramas are certainly attractive and make us believe we’re feeling something, but in the case of The Way Back, that something is mostly cliché-fatigue.
+Affleck's dominance as a leading man; talented supporting cast.
-Confusing, generic plot; so slow
The Way Back
Directed by O'Connor
With Affleck, Gavankar, a bunch of teens we'll never remember
Violet Crown, Regal 14, R, 108 min.