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Firmly established subgenres like stories of personal redemption and underdog sporting victories are hard to freshen up. They’ve already been done to the point where trying to put a new spin on either of those story elements is now as hard as trying to combine the two together.

It’s not uncharted territory for director Gavin O’Connor, as movies such as Miracle and Warrior have given him the opportunity to cross these kinds of stories into a cohesive whole in the past. But with The Way Back, the results are all the more exciting to behold, as O’Connor reteams with his The Accountant collaborator Ben Affleck to tell a story that hits close to home, allowing the actor to mine his personal history for a truly effective performance.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) works in construction by day, and is a hardcore drinker by night. Estranged from his ex-wife (Javina Gavankar) and still getting along with his family, Jack’s scraping by with a firm habit and no way out in sight.

By surprise, Jack is offered the last opportunity he’d ever think of entertaining: the coaching position on his Catholic school alma mater’s basketball team. With a young team of players that need some discipline, and his own problems ever present in his mind, this unexpected change of pace is thought to be the thing that Jack needs to get himself back on track.

The Way Back is a rousing sports story with heart.

If The Way Back were a Disney movie, it would have pulled way more punches than Gavin O’Connor’s film does. Co-writing the script with writer Brad Inglesby, O’Connor and his collaborator take the best of both worlds, and make not only an intriguing character study focused on addiction and recovery, but also a sports story for the ages.

The fact that this is an R-rated version of a movie we’d normally see play out in a PG-rated property is a huge part of what makes The Way Back as unique of a film as it is. We still get montages of a sweeping change in Jack and his team’s abilities on the court, and the movie is very much a feel good affirmation of how people can change. But there’s a little extra that pushes this film beyond the status quo you’d expect from this sort of project.

Seeing Ben Affleck’s Jack in the actual throes of his addiction help anchor the reality of The Way Back rather well. Also, the fact that the young players and their coach are allowed to talk like real people, obscenities and all, breaks some new ground by bringing some authenticity to a genre that usually plays a little too safe with its characters.

Gavin O'Connor continues to prove that he's a sports movie master.

Gavin O’Connor’s experience on both sides of the Disney movie divide (having made Miracle for the studio) definitely polishes The Way Back into a success that still hits you in the heart. With more of a realistic approach to the high school sports story aspects, the co-writer/director is able to meld that story together with that of Jack’s battle with alcoholism in a truly believable way.

The Way Back tells a story of teamwork and the inspirational power of sports, but it does so with a very human heart. All the while, Gavin O’Connor knows how best to balance the story of Jack’s struggles as well as that of his team, while robbing neither half of its importance. There are even some well-placed turns the The Way Back takes with its characters that only hammer home the importance of a very real story. Some of the tropes you’d expect to see play out in either a story of personal redemption or sporting triumph are missing, and in their place are well earned events that better serve a more dramatically rich and believable version of what seems like a familiar narrative.

Ben Affleck gives a beautifully cathartic performance.

As someone who’s struggled with alcoholism himself, Ben Affleck is the perfect choice to bring Jack Cunningham to life, flaws and all, in The Way Back. With the leeway to be a more imperfect but kind-hearted version of a coach who wants to lead his kids to glory, Affleck’s performance on and off the film’s court is an absolutely beautiful exercise in catharsis.

His own personal history lends an extra angle of verisimilitude when it comes to watching Jack’s progress and setbacks that come with his crippling addiction. It’s also because of his own experiences that we see Ben Affleck working through his own painful past through his work, which only enriches The Way Back’s entire central conceit.

Rooting for both Jack Cunningham and the team he’s coaching is easier than ever thanks to the troubles he faces in The Way Back carrying the dramatic weight that they do. Seeing him morph into a take charge coach that helps a team of teenagers turn their fates around brings out all the best in Affleck, and when he cranks things into full coaching mode, you can’t help but feel inspired yourself.

An emotional tale of redemption and recovery, The Way Back takes a time tested story, and infuses it with realism and humanity. It’s a familiar sort of movie, painted with some extra dimensions not normally included that turn it into a fine example of both sports cinema and character work. A honest, feel good triumph of team spirit and personal growth awaits those who see it.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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