The Way Back is more than your average sports film. Yes, it feels all too familiar but what really makes it stand out, is the integration of Coach Cunningham’s backstory and how it affected his outlook when coaching.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) used to play basketball in high school. He was the all star player and was at the top of his game. After a series of poor decisions, that were made to spite his own father, Jack ended up being in a spot he never thought he’d be in. It’s true when people say that the child pays, for the sins of the father. It’s a vicious cycle and it takes one small change, to break the cycle.
Gavin O’Connor is a fantastic director and I really enjoy his style. The Way Back felt like a tight knit sports drama, while the observational style in the camerawork, felt like I was watching a documentary. The story was incredibly realistic and that’s why it pulled on the heartstrings. More importantly, O’Connor always manages to slowly peel back the layers of his characters, making the story progression more impactful. It’s a slow burn but it’s definitely effective.
Jack Cunningham is a very strong character. He’s subdued, most of his fighting is internal and his love of basketball makes him regain control of his life. This is also Ben Affleck’s best performance to date. It could be because the subject matter is close to him, so he could relate to Cunningham a bit more, but nonetheless, it’s incredibly moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play such a vulnerable character. It’s heartbreaking to watch because of how personal this film is to him. Affleck and O’Connor work very well together and this is their best collaboration yet.
Cunningham’s backstory, is more complex than the trailers lead on. As the story unfolds, his demons creep out and his past continues to haunt him because he represses his pain. Once he becomes a Coach and he’s around teenagers, with the same love for basketball, that he once had, he begins to reflect on his life. It’s an internal performance from Affleck but when he’s on the court with his team, that’s when the magic happens and I couldn’t have been happier to see him like that.
Affleck is the driving force of this film and it’s such a great sports film. The whole team was great and each of them had strong backstories. It’s all about being a role model to these kids and Cunningham did that without trying to be one. Sometimes you may feel small and think that your presence doesn’t affect anyone because that’s the darkness of doubt overpowering your mind. You may not think here are people who love and appreciate your existence, but there are.
It’s strong subject matter of alcoholism was executed quite well throughout. The way O’Connor showed the abuse of alcohol was unsettling but effective. No one had to say a word, but seeing any drink in Cunningham’s hand made me sad. It’s difficult to sit through because of how well they showed the alcoholism. Majority of the time the alcoholism is discussed but never shown and that’s why The Way Back is so well done.
I’m incredibly proud of Ben Affleck and how he chose this film to be a catharsis for his own suffering. The Way Back is one of his best, if not his BEST performance and he should be recognized for this. It’s hard to be vocal about your own pain and suffering and it’s a big step to openly discuss it with the world.