The Way Back Nails a Full Court Shot

It took 40 years, but we finally have a sports drama that can hold its own against the genre’s heavyweight champion, Rocky

The Way Back was released on March 6, 2020, and was directed by Gavin O’Connor. The film stars Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, and Janina Gavankar as Angela. 20 years since it has made it to the playoffs, a high school basketball team enlists the help of Jack Cunningham, who was one of the best players in his day, to try and see that glory revived. 

The film’s performances are all wonderful, but Affleck stands out. Affleck excels at portraying a very conflicted, traumatized alcoholic. His performance vibrates a certain realness that the whole film is drenched in. The character progression he goes through and the actions he makes feel real, and he’s fantastic to watch on screen. Gavankar, as Cunningham’s ex-wife, and Affleck work off each other well.

This is not a cliché sports film; if you go into this expecting Remember the Titans or The Sandlot you will be disappointed. As much as the film is about this basketball team, and its underdog story, the script ingeniously uses that as a backdrop to develop the character of Cunningham. For example, when the team finally makes it to the final game, in a film like Remember the Titans, that’s where the movie ends. Whereas here when that happens, the movie goes on for another 20-30 minutes, to focus more on Cunningham and his character development. 

Another terrific element of the script is that the film discusses and uses religion in its story but never makes a point to ‘look at the camera’ and say, “Here’s why religion is good or bad.” It’s simply there for the story, and no agenda is ever shoved in the viewer’s face. 

Overall the script is fantastic. As said before, its dialogue feels shockingly realistic and natural. The exposition is delightful, and again natural. Many times in drama films the screenwriters feel the need to have characters swear so that it has the perception that something meaningful is happening. Here, it’s (again very realistically) to show character development and growth in character. You could compare it to the way Logan used gory violence to show how far off the deep end that character had gone. 

The script takes its time to unravel and grow not only each character but the overall story. Because of this, the many twists, and the character development feel logical. For example, Cunningham is an alcoholic but we never really find out why until later in the film, and when we do it brings all the pieces together. 

This isn’t a comedy, but when the film does have jokes, they are funny and work well. For example, during one game Cunningham calls a time out, having all the players on the bench, and says, “All right! I’m feeling a comeback!” Right after this, the film freeze frames to show his team’s losing score. 

The directing is marvelous. The film uses many hand-held and eye-level shots to further bring you into the world it fabulously creates. If this film was completely hand-held, with the rich acting and dialogue, you could mistake it for a documentary. The film’s score by Rob Simonsen (Gifted) is among his best work.  

There were some abrupt editing problems in the first act that are jarring and take you out of the film slightly. For example, in the prologue where we meet Cunningham for the first time before the title card. Other than that, there were very few noticeable problems. 

The great, raw performances found throughout, mixed with the eerily realistic dialogue, and mostly good camera work, excellently craft together an incredibly memorable and rewarding story.  

[My grade for The Way Back is an A]

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