Review: The Way Back

Score: B

Director: Gavin O'Connor

Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rated: R

There's nothing in The Way Back you haven't seen before. Part addiction drama, part inspirational sports movie, it's cliché but also something that seems increasingly rare: a simple story done well.

Ben Affleck is doing some of the best work of his career as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenom whose life is hanging on by the loosest of threads. The Way Back doles out the tragedies – some self-inflicted, some not – over the course of the film. One particularly devastating event feels manipulative, but the film slowly but surely earns the emotions it draws out.

After the coach at his alma mater has a heart attack, he's asked to step in. The team is lousy and underfunded – their archrivals, of course, have a state-of-the-art arena and an Under Armour deal – but has heart. What's so pleasurable about watching the in-game scenes and practice montages, is that Jack as a coach doesn't do anything particularly revolutionary or inspiring to improve his team. He slots players into better roles, focuses on endurance and defense, and encourages 3-pointers.

Similarly, Jack's journey to sobriety is taken one step at a time, choosing not to take the drink in front of him. When a series of setbacks send him back to the barstool and into the hospital, the film is at its rawest. A scene at a therapy session is one of the few times he's been honest with any character in the film, and it's powerful stuff.

Where the film doesn't quite succeed is in its attempts to make us care about the kids on the team. Only one character – the team captain – gets any sort of backstory, and (surprise!) it's daddy issues. With so little detail, it would have been better not to introduce this aspect at all and focus entirely on Affleck's character.

Still, the sports scenes are often electrifying, and the dramatic scenes are appropriately earnest. The Way Back is going to be a cable mainstay for years to come, and it's earned it.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.