By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Cate Johnson
With the 2020 NBA basketball season inching closer and closer to a complete cancellation, it’s been difficult for basketball fans to find basketball-related content to fill the NBA-sized hole in their hearts. If you think Gavin O’Conner’s 2020 film “The Way Back” will fill that hole, save your money. The basketball content of the film is underwhelming to say the least, but where the film succeeds is in its candid (and heart wrenching) portrayal of trauma, suffering, and alcoholism.
Ex-high school basketball phenomenon Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is called upon by his old Catholic high school principal to coach the current floundering team. Struggling through personal suffering and a severe drinking problem — every morning he drinks a beer in the shower — can Cunningham return the team to its former glory?
The answer is “yes,” which is painfully obvious if you’ve seen any inspirational sports movie before, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything new about the basketball narrative in this film. Every cliché of the “sports drama” genre can be found in “The Way Back:” a reluctant hero whose glory days are behind him, an underdog team who ultimately finds what it takes to win, and a few basketball montages as a garnish.
While the “underdog sports genre” plot is predictable and dull, “The Way Back” admittedly has a lot of heart and isn’t afraid to show the often messy ways we deal with trauma. Much of this heart can be attributed to Affleck’s performance, and I can’t help but think that he was able to draw from his personal troubles with alcohol to develop his character. The suffering felt real, and it was clear that this pain was real to Affleck, too. Affleck’s performance as Jack Cunningham single-handedly bolsters the emotional spine of the film and is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of “The Way Back.”
In a film that is so perceptive in terms of character and emotional resonance, it is disappointing to witness other elements that fall flat. “The Way Back” is comfortably situated in convention as the story structure is painfully predictable and hardly takes any effort to break past clichés of a typical sports drama. Sure, as a movie that stays within the confines of conventional moviemaking, it succeeds within that narrow creative lane. The cinematography, editing, and sound design are as good as they need to be, not atrocious but not impressive either.
What is atrocious is the film’s musical score. Aside from the cardinal sin of being entirely forgettable — I honestly cannot remember what instruments were used — the music leaves no emotional freedom for the audience to feel anything on their own. It just jams itself onto the scene and dictates exactly how the viewer should feel.
The music is so simplistically “hopeful” or “sad” that one can easily guess how each scene is going to play out, further emphasizing how predictable “The Way Back” is. The movie needs a spoiler alert at the beginning of each scene simply because the music gives so much away. It would have been better off if O’Connor had just scrapped the score entirely.
Though Ben Affleck is left heavily unsupported by the other cinematic elements of “The Way Back,” it is difficult not to care about his character. The music sucks, and every other technical aspect takes absolutely no risks, but this film has enough heart to ultimately make it worth the watch.