“[Insert inspirational coach speech here]” Image courtesy IMDB

In director Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who’s been an isolated alcoholic since a personal tragedy crippled his personal life. A figure from Cunningham’s past reappears and asks him to coach the basketball team of his alma mater, which hasn’t won a game since Jack himself was the all-star player. Will Jack get his act together? Will the team win the big game? Will the star player be carried around on someone’s shoulders during the big win montage? Have you ever seen a sports movie before?

If you’ve read the synopsis or seen the trailer and thought, This sounds like Hoosiers with Affleck playing the Dennis Hopper role, you’re not alone. The story itself is fairly predictable. In fact, let’s play a game of Barry’s Movie Mad Libs: in The Way Back, Ben Affleck plays (Insert Manly Name Here), a (Insert Manly Profession Here) who hasn’t been good at (Insert Manly Sport Here) since high school. Now, (Insert Manly Last Name Here), must coach the underdog team, (Insert Manly High School Sports Team Name), a bunch of ragtag teens, in order to redeem himself and the team’s reputation before the Big Game. OK, I played along with you and here’s what I got:  

Ben Affleck plays Flubber Lubjub, a stationary factory janitor who hasn’t been good at climbing the monkey bars since high school. Now, Lubjub must coach the underdog team, the Milwaukee Skidmarks, a bunch of ragtag teens, in order to redeem himself and the team’s reputation before the Big Game.

If your answer looks anything like mine, congratulations, we’ve both just concocted a movie with more surprises in it than The Way Back. Yet, to give the star and filmmaker a lot of credit, what could have been rote and tidy is actually character-driven, tough as nails, and much better than expected. The Way Back is moving and in ways that are hard earned. 

There are a number of ingredients here that are strong enough to make it stand out. First and foremost, Affleck’s sincere, vulnerable performance. He has a thousand-yard stare that is especially affecting and never shies from the uglier aspects of the character. As an actor, this is up there with Gone Girl, The Town, Changing Lanes, and Chasing Amy as his finest work.

Affleck reunites with director Gavin O’Connor, who helmed the actor’s offbeat, fairly outrageous surprise hit, The Accountant from 2016. O’Connor is greatly aided by cinematographer Eduard Grau (who masterfully shot Tom Ford’s A Single Man), who makes this artful and immediate. Unlike most mainstream films depicting team sports, this one doesn’t offer cookie cutter gloss but a lived-in harshness. The supporting cast is aces, particularly Matthew Glave, who most remember playing Drew Barrymore’s smarmy boyfriend in The Wedding Singer; here, as a rival coach, he steals a few scenes outright from Affleck.

While the story hits predictable marks, O’Connor tries to avoid as many sports movie clichés as possible. A number of games are cut short, with final scores flashing on screen in lieu of seeing the entire game play out. I also love how O’Conner subverts how we expect the final match to go, once again emphasizing how this isn’t about the fate of one game but the possibilities for the players and their coach off the court. O’Connor helmed the Kurt Russell-led Miracle, one of the all-time best movies in its genre. This isn’t anything like that, as it focuses on Cunningham’s devastating personal struggles and loss, and his daily struggle just to get out of bed.

A few subplots are severely cut short, such as the homelife of a star player, Cunningham’s sister and friends, and how he can sustain his construction job. The hour-and-45-minute running time makes the film eventful but fairly tight. It’s not an overlong movie and could have benefitted from beefing up some of the plot strands that are left on the bench.

The smartest sports movies know it’s not the big game at the end that matters most but the characters; The Way Back knows this and concludes in a rousing and realistic manner. 

Three Stars

Rated R/108 Min.

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