I’m squarely in Ben Affleck’s corner when it comes to an assessment of talent. He might not make the right moves all the time, but he can clearly knock it out of the park when he really wants to.
While The Way Back couldn’t be considered a home run in just about any sense, the combination of a heartfelt performance from Affleck and a commitment to the story from director Gavin O’Connor mesh together to form a chimera of a drama that should leave most people satisfied.
To call The Way Back a “sports film” would be a bit of a misnomer. Make no mistake, there are sports involved (one of the main plotlines involves Affleck’s character, Jack Cunningham, coaching a basketball team for his former high school), but the focus is clearly on Cunningham himself, and his trials and tribulations: specifically, his bout with alcohol. Affleck has clearly put all of his effort into this role, and he embodies that nuance.
While the script does stray into melodrama on occasion, many story beats hit very close to home and will demand an emotional reaction. Affleck has that magic touch when it comes to playing the duality of an affectionate caring and charismatic human being alongside of a very scary tortured soul. He is the beating heart of this film.
In the shadow of that performance, The Way Back is an extreme case of give and take. It walks that tightrope in that at any time, it could get over-the-top or too grounded and real. There’s plenty of comedic elements (especially on the part of Affleck, who sports a foul-mouth when coaching a Catholic team) and some rock bottom moments. A lack of a sappy romantic plot helps this character study along despite getting off the rails a bit in the third act.
All that said it is part sports movie; and all of those parts work like a well-oiled machine. You can tell the creative team really cared about the actual sport of basketball, throwing in lingo here and there while younger actors who are ostensibly athletes keep up. At its best, The Way Back feels natural as hell from top to bottom. That’s the O’Connor difference. The Way Back could have been stuck in a rut with another lead actor/director team-up, but there’s a heart present that just isn’t there in a lot of other more generic coaching films. If you’re in the mood for a breezy but flawed character study, give it a shot: pun-intended.