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Friday, March 06, 2020

The Way Back

"I'm fine".

Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back is a highly emotional and effective drama that understands what those words mean to an alcoholic, or to anyone who might be suffering or recovering from any sort of addiction.  It's always the go-to answer.  It usually means the person does not want to talk about their situation, and wants to move on as quickly as possible from the subject.  Sometimes they say it with a smile, hoping they can fool you, and sometimes they say it with a look that tells you they don't want to talk about it.  But it always means the same thing.

These two words are spoken numerous times by Jack Cunningham, played by Ben Affleck in what is easily his most memorable performance in years.  During the early scenes, we see him as he runs into people he knows, or joins his family for Thanksgiving dinner.  His response is always the same.  He's fine, he's doing great.  But, we know the people around him don't believe him.  When he runs into an old friend at a convenience store, he puts up a cheery facade, and we can tell that the friend doesn't buy it by the way he glances back at him when Jack leaves the store.  At the family dinner, he does his best to smile, and goofs around with his nephews.  But his sister (Michaela Watkins) doesn't quite buy the act.  When Jack realizes this, he gets angry at her when they are alone. 

Jack has a lot of personal demons outside of his alcoholism, and as they slowly are revealed during the course of the film, they ring with truth and honesty, instead of the soap opera-style theatrics that we might expect.  It is the driving force behind the film and its emotional power, much more so than the traditional sports underdog story that makes up the rest of the film.  It's not that the sports story is bad in any way.  Heck, O'Connor has plenty of experience directing inspirational sports movies, and he shows his skill here by giving us cleanly edited game scenes, and a reason to want to see the team that Jack is eventually placed in charge of as coach succeed.  The movie even finds a few new angles for the formula.  This is the first time in a long time where an inspiration sports movie did not climax with a big game.  Oh, there's a big game at the end, but for once, it's not the central focus of the film's ending.

What also helps the athletic angle of the story is how Affleck seems to respond and play off of his young co-stars, who play a high school basketball team of Bishop Hayes High, where Jack himself attended and played back in his younger years.  There's a real chemistry with the performances between the Coach and his players, which helps a lot, as the kids who make up the team are not really fleshed out too well by the script.  There's the kid who doesn't believe in himself even though he has great potential, the one who's always trying to hook up with one of the cheerleaders, one who likes to dance on the court, and one who has a father that doesn't approve of the kid playing basketball and hoping to have a future beyond school, and has never showed up at the games to support him. (No prizes for guessing whether or not the father will turn up for the big game, and give his kid a supportive nod as he takes his seat in the stands.) It's the performances of Affleck and his young co-stars that hold our attention during these scenes.

The Way Back contains all the predictable stops and required plot points that date back to The Bad News Bears, and probably even further than that.  The team hasn't won in years, and don't know how to rely on each other in order to win.  A down on his luck coach comes in, slowly turns the players around, and the team begins to win.  We get the training and game montages, and the moments where the players begin to open up to the coach, showing that they are starting to trust him.  If this is all that there was to the movie, it would be a well made, but overly predictable work that would probably be forgotten by everyone who saw it weeks later.  The fact that this movie chooses to make Jack's personal life the focus, and not whether or not the team will make it to the big game, is a touch I greatly appreciated.  And as I mentioned, I appreciated the honesty with which it treats its dramatic subject matter.  This is not a movie about easy answers, nor does it have the obligatory happy ending.  It's a hopeful ending, though.

Affleck is clearly drawing upon some of how own personal and publicized experiences dealing with addiction in his performance here, and it's a very open and memorable one.  It's one of those roles that an actor takes in order to help them deal with some of the things that's been happening in their private lives.  Even if it's not entirely their own experience, they can bring a lot to the table, and that's exactly what he does here.  Jack is always believable, because we can sense the star understands where the character is coming from.  Jack was a star player on his team back in high school, and could have gone on to a future in the sport professionally, but personal issues with an alcoholic father held him back.  He self destructed, found his footing and got married, and then had another series of losses that I will not talk about here.  He's regressed back to his lowest point, and doesn't care.  Naturally, part of the film follows how the kids on the team help him regain some of his self confidence and a feeling of worth, but a bigger part falls on how Jack kind of doesn't want to change in a way, and has to find rock bottom before he can pull himself up again.

That's the power of the film.  It understands the path that many people just like Jack take.  The movie is about denial and anger as much as it is about recovery.  I appreciated that angle.  So many movies about addiction want to show the entire recovery process in two hours or less.  The Way Back is smart enough to know it can't fit everything in, and just shows us what it can.  It shows us more than enough, and ends on a note that lets us know Jack is only beginning with healing.  Either that, or he might slip all over again.  It's up to him.

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