Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Way Back

The simplest way to describe The Way Back would be if a Hallmark movie and a sports movie had a baby. Pulling from two separate genres, the film from director Gavin O'Connor doesn't have to strain too hard as it uses the basic tropes of each as a crutch for much of its running time. The film introduces us to former star basketball player Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) who is lured out of his alcoholic haze by his old Catholic high school in need of an emergency replacement for their down-on-their-luck basketball team. Apparently the need for a coach was dire enough that Cunningham being well-known as the local slush wasn't enough to immediately eliminate him from contention.

At first reluctant to take the job, Cunningham accepts the added responsibility and stress while dealing with a serious drinking problem, a broken marriage, and recent tragedy in his family. If Affleck's character was a song, it would be a country song. As for his team, it's the expected motley group of kids smaller and less athletically gifted than most of their competition, but when both the coach and players buy-in and put their noses to the grindstone... well, you know the rest.

Just as the sports thread of the story plays to type, so does the story of a broken man on his way to the bottom before finding understanding and a bit of salvation. The script by O'Connor and Brad Ingelsby works overtime to not color outside the lines of well-established themes, but the film does offer its share of enjoyable moments such as the running gags of Cunningham's inability to control his language on the court, much to the dismay of the team's spiritual advisor (Jeremy Radin), and one of his players (Will Ropp) putting moves on the cheerleader of the moment. While earning far-less screentime than Affleck, Janina Gavankar steals a few scenes as Cunningham's estranged wife as the reasons for their rocky relationship are revealed. Affleck and Gavankar help elevate what could have easily been a movie of the week into something with a bit more substance even if the film is lacking in other areas.

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