Ben Affleck explodes inside and outside the basketball court.
Ben Affleck has struggled with alcoholism and rehab in the past, and his latest entry, “The Way Back,” resonates with those former issues, and allows him to face his inner demons to bring his character to life. This is not only one of his best performances of his career, ranking with “Good Will Hunting,” “Chasing Amy,” “The Town,” and “Argo,” among others, but he also delivers one of the year’s best performances.
Reuniting with director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant”), the actor plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star and construction worker, who drinks his sorrows away. He has a beer in the shower, the fridge, and freezer; and he sneaks his vodka in his coffee during his shifts. He’s also trying to patch things up with his separated wife (Janina Gavankar), who begins seeing another person, and every night at the bar, the local sober man Doc (Glynn Turman) brings him home safely.
The movie is also a basketball drama, though it never delves into the full persona of its main players, like Brandon (Brandon Wilson) and Marcus (Melvin Gregg). But then again, the movie is about Affleck’s character suffering from alcoholism. In this case, he’s supposed to be the substitute basketball coach for a young team in his alma mater, with help from a math teacher (Al Madrigal).
He’s not supposed to curse like a sailor, being that it’s typical school rules, but he does it anyway, especially when he criticizes his players for not playing hard, and when things don’t go his way during the games. Most of the times they win, but the whole point of the program isn’t to win, but to motivate the youngsters.
There are also explanations as to why the main protagonist resorted to alcoholism, which I’d rather not spoil at this point. All I can mentions is that these reason really give depth and emotion to the character, and writer Brad Ingelsby studies him very well. Each moment, emotion, and struggle brings out the best in Affleck’s character, and we’re able to acknowledge his faults, and feel his pain.
The supporting work is also solid, if not profoundly examined. Gavankar is the second actress I’ve seen today to not follow the estranged woman cliches, after Illiza Shlesinger in “Spenser Confidential,” and she’s charming and considerate in this role. And the young actors have their moments, even though I wanted more narrative to their characters.
“The Way Back” may be a basketball drama, but it’s not just about the sport. It’s about Affleck struggling to find a new path in his life. And if he’s struggled with the disease of alcoholism in the past, then it’s crystal clear that he puts all his strengths and weaknesses in his character. This is believable work from him, and Gavin O’Connor, once more, guides him with the correct intentions.