Certain films can speak to us in ways that can’t always truly be explained or understood. Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck’s Finding the Way Back (or The Way Back as it is known outside of the UK) is one of those movies for me.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) spends his days as an ironworker and his evenings in his favourite bar. Throughout all of it, he’s a compulsive drunk. We find out he poisons himself with booze as a way of dealing with his past tragedies. That is until he receives a call from Father Devine, from his old catholic high school and is offered the chance to coach their basketball team. A team Jack was once a part of, and is told they haven’t been in playoff contention ever since he graduated nearly thirty years ago.
Whilst he continues to battle his demons, Jack looks to instil some faith into this young team and even earn himself a new lease on life. His coaching methods are unorthodox to the catholic community, but to the players his aggressive and rather blunt approach is the much needed change these young boys deserve.
Gavin O’Connor’s track record for sporting flicks just refuses to falter. His 2004 ice skating drama ‘Miracle’ was our introduction to his skill. Fast forward to 2011 and his MMA melodrama ‘Warrior’ further improved upon that skill. Last year saw the return to this formula after a near ten year gap, and it could be argued that this is his best yet.
Ben Affleck as the lead role was one hell of a power move. His own past troubles with alcohol was clearly a motivational drive for his performance here, and let me be frank, this is Affleck’s best performance. Perhaps not the best project he’s ever been tied too, and not even the best movie he’s appeared in. But if you were to pin him to one role that best utilises his strengths and allows him to fully demonstrate his acting credibility, then I’d say look no further from what he does here.
It does often feel a little too central focused. The basketball theme acts as more of a background vehicle and for the most part plays second fiddle to Jack’s journey to full recovery. Rarely any of the other characters are really given the time or room to fully express themselves, especially the players on the team. Sure some are given some quirky characteristics, and one or two are given some backstory, but it’s very thin and doesn’t spend a great deal of time capitalising on them.
As we’ve seen from O’Connor in his previous work, he likes to tackle genuine life struggles. This time alcohol abuse, addiction and grief are at the forefront of his story. He adds far more weight and depth to his films and as a result appear more than just sporting events. Not just another underdog story that follows the same old beats, but is willing to handle broader subjects.
This is a sports drama that handles both genres rather well. Leaning perhaps too heavily on its dramatic roots, and has too many plot points to wrap up in the last half hour. Not everything gets the closure it deserves but for the most part it serves up some dramatic devastation that feels like an endless gut punch.
If you enjoyed Warrior then you’ll surely find something similar to take away from this. It predominantly works through Affleck’s astounding (and perhaps too close to home) performance, but there are other elements to it that help create a deftly harrowing and thought provoking piece.
Not quite the full slam-dunk, but it nets most of its narrative points and has an MVP in Ben Affleck.