[Screen It]


(2020) (Ben Affleck, Brandon Wilson) (R)

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Drama: A former high school basketball star, now a grieving alcoholic, gets a shot at redemption when he's asked to take over the coaching duties at his former school.

Back in the 1990s, Jack Cunningham (BEN AFFLECK) was the star basketball player at Bishop Hayes High School but he purposefully let a bright future slip through his fingers. Now separated from his wife, Angela (JANINA GAVANKAR), and dealing with a recent tragedy by self-medicating through alcohol, Jack is a full-blown alcoholic who even drinks while working his construction job, all of which concerns his sister, Beth (MICHAELA WATKINS).

Accordingly, he's surprised when he's contacted by the head priest at his former school -- who's unaware of his issues -- to take over coaching duties for the basketball team due to the current coach having had a heart attack. Jack is reluctant, but eventually agrees and gets the quick low-down from assistant coach Dan (AL MADRIGAL) about the sorry state of the team, while pointing out the qualities of the various players that include showboat Marcus (MELVIN GREGG), uber-talented but humble Brandon (BRANDON WILSON), and school lothario Kenny (WILL ROPPP), among others.

With most of the players unfocused and undisciplined, Jack has his work cut out for him, and it's rough-going for a while, but he eventually whips the team into competitive shape. Since he's yet to deal with his off-court demons, however, it's uncertain if those issues and his behavior will ultimately undermine his and the team's efforts.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

Speaking from experience, for anyone who believes that acting (on the stage, TV or in the movies) is easy, whip out your phone or other recording device and capture yourself playing an entirely different person. Now watch that video. And compare that to what pretty much any professional actor delivers. I'm guessing the results don't favorably compare when it comes to believability. Yes, like most professions in life, acting is hard and takes a lot of practice and hands-on experience to make it work and get viewers to believe in whatever character is being portrayed.

Of course, actors can pull from a variety of resources -- and acting strategies taught by any number of veteran performers to academic types to simple gurus -- to get the job done for any specific part. Sometimes that's limited to nothing more than a vivid imagination. But the parts that usually resonate the most realistically are those that have some degree or even one-hundred percent truth behind them. So, if you're auditioning for and ultimately land a part, any such related experience can and usually does go a long way.

Such is the case with Ben Affleck in "The Way Back" where he plays an alcoholic in a failed marriage who gets a shot at redemption. Considering the real-life man developed a drinking problem, had his marriage (to Jennifer Garner) fall apart and is trying to pull himself back up to respectability -- and, at least in my view, is one of those sorts that has a general aura of unhappiness about him that you can't help but sense -- it's not too much of a stretch for him to play this part. Not surprisingly, he's quite good in the role -- perhaps not quite of the caliber to be remembered and nominated come award season time, but you believe every ounce of the performance.

The same holds true for the overall sports drama that acts as the backdrop for the character story. And that shouldn't come as a surprise as the film has been directed by Gavin O'Connor -- working from a script by Brad Ingelsby -- who's previously delivered the sports-related dramatic goods with the 2004 hockey drama "Miracle" and 2011 MMA drama "Warrior." He also previously directed Affleck in the math-action flick "The Accountant."

Here, the shots are of the basketball rather than gun variety as Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, the most famous basketball player at Bishop Hayes High School where he shot hoops and to local stardom back in the '90s. Since then, the team has been in a constant downward trajectory, sort of like its former star who gave up the game for personal reasons and ultimately thought he had found happiness elsewhere, only to have that ripped out from beneath him. Now, he self-medicates in the form of heavy alcoholism, something not readily apparent to the current head priest at the school who asks Jack to return and take over coaching duties, what with the current coach sidelined due to a heart attack.

What follows is material we've seen countless times before in the reluctant former star returning to whip a group of undisciplined ballplayers into winning shape (including getting the one true star -- played by Brandon Wilson -- to realize his potential), all while contending with the demons that still haunt his personal life. And that includes the eventual reveal of why his marriage to his wife (Janina Gavankar) failed, his sibling (Michaela Watkins) worrying about him, and the all-too-obvious to predict literal and metaphorical falling off the wagon in the third act just when things seem to be working out for him.

Yet, despite all of that familiarity, all involved manage to make it work and certainly easy to watch, with O'Connor putting enough of a gentle spin on the elements to give them a touch of freshness rather than simply following the usual trajectory of such sports flicks. And with Affleck grounding his character in complete believability via close real-life experience, this offering ends up having no problem getting you to root for all of the underdogs, players and the coach alike. "The Way Back" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 4, 2020 / Posted March 6, 2020

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