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Review: Ben Affleck is captivating in rousing 'The Way Back'

Courtesy of Warner Bros.


The title of Ben Affleck’s rousing basketball drama “The Way Back” could be seen as a metaphor for the actors life as of late. He got a divorce from long time partner Jennifer Garner, he couldn’t save DC’s cinematic universe, there was his directorial failure “Live By Night” and he stumbled into a spat of alcoholism and depression. So, ironically, “The Way Back” sees Affleck on somewhat familiar grounds: a lousy and depressed construction worker who sneaks fifths of vodka into his coffee thermos each morning, is recently separated from his wife and is looking for something to keep him going.

In “The Way Back” - Affleck’s Jack Cunningham - a once prodigal son in the realm of high school basketball - is given a call from his alma mater to become the new head coach for the struggling basketball program that hasn’t made the playoffs since Jack was in school circa 1995. He takes the gig and quickly discovers the teams underlying issues: most of the athletes on the team don’t communicate with each other, they have enlarged egos, and they don’t respect the game.

But in true “based on a true story” fashion (of which this film is not) - Cunningham rallies his team to a swoon of respectable victories in route to a hopeful playoff appearance. Of course, they have to try and beat their chief rivals and overcome underdog status in order to leave an impact. You’ve seen it all before in countless other sports dramas, but Affleck is the driving force here and his emotional intensity and profanity spewing performance make the film worth rooting for.

And you can tell this is a catharsis moment for the actor who is trying to find the correct footing to land on following a string of costly disappointments. “The Way Back” shares its convictions and themes with others in the genre, and while the film is about a struggling team trying to work together and make history, “The Way Back” is more about the anguish and self-loathing someone like Jack feels on a daily basis. Spoiler alert, there isn’t a big game on the line near the end and the film doesn’t conclude with a buzzer beater shot to save the day, but instead focuses on how Jack is coping (about his marriage and alcoholism) and director Gavin O'Connor (“The Accountant”) is both wise and bold for taking that risk. They say you miss every shot you don’t take, and in this case Affleck and Connor get pretty close to a slam dunk.

Grade: B+

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