Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 13, 2020

Another compelling redemption story found on ‘The Way Back’

I’m a sucker for sports movies in which an athlete or team overcomes daunting obstacles to win a medal or championship. There’s something about beating the odds and claiming the crown that captivates me, no matter how many times I see it.

I also love a comeback story. We all have themes in fiction that appeal to us, and for whatever reason, I’m drawn to stories of redemption, no matter how many of them I see.

That makes “The Way Back,” a sports drama in which a basketball coach must defeat his personal demons and lead a team of diamonds in the rough to the playoffs, my kind of movie.

It’s also a good movie. I’ll even go as far as saying it flirts with being great.

The coach is Jack Cunningham, who continually pours alcohol over something dark inside him. It’s not immediately clear what that is, although there are allusions as the film begins.

Played by Ben Affleck, Jack is a portrait of what it looks like when grief has smothered every semblance of life in a person except his vital signs. You can even see the weight of it on Jack’s arm as he lifts maybe the 20th can of beer of the evening out of his refrigerator.

Eventually, the priest from Jack’s Catholic high school asks him to return to coach the basketball team, which hasn’t been to the playoffs since he was its star player decades earlier. For some reason, Jack agrees.

If you’re like I was at this point, you’re mentally crossing off story beats. Jack steps up, butts heads with his players and they begin to respond to him, if not respect him, because that has to come later. Along the way, they lose a few more games.

Well, you can guess what happens. But the thing that makes “The Way Back” special is the way it happens.

There are no big speeches, caricatures or overstated drama, although Affleck does have some intense moments on the sidelines. Instead, the performances are grounded and real and dialogue is unaffected and generally free of platitudes.

Additionally, Gavin O’Connor’s direction has an appealing natural quality. Even the on-court action lacks the sleekness of many sports movies. Instead, the camera appears to sit on the sidelines, inviting the viewer to watch.

The lack of desperation in the filmmaking allows the story to unfold slowly and confidently. I like the way Jack simply steps onto the court and begins to shout instructions to his players during his first practice with them, and I admired how “The Way Back” doesn’t make a big deal of the turning points in the story but slips them in without fanfare.

“Don’t underestimate the impact you can have on these boys,” says the team chaplain as he’s lecturing Jack on his use of profanities. This almost sounds like an afterthought, but it sparks a subtle change in Affleck’s expression that suggests something has shifted.

As the story unfolds, a theme emerges. Thankfully, “The Way Back” is not about believing in yourself or being courageous in the face of towering odds, but about moving past the people and events that damaged you. This theme unfolds beautifully and without pretense in Jack’s life and in the lives of his players.

O’Connor and his writer, Brad Ingelsby, were unable to resist a few sports movie clichés. As much as I admire “The Way Back,” my eyes rolled a little when a disapproving father arrived at the big game at the last minute and his son smiled before dashing onto the court.

But “The Way Back” makes up for these lesser moments with a quiet, understated final scene that delivers everything a sports movie and comeback story should in a way no other sports movie or comeback story I’ve seen has.

At some point during “The Way Back,” someone says, “Do the little things right.” (The speaker and context escape me.) The filmmakers took that advice to heart and made a movie that does all the small things right, and in the end, manages to be something of a big deal.