The Movie Waffler New Release Review [VOD] - FINDING THE WAY BACK | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [VOD] - FINDING THE WAY BACK

finding the way back review
A troubled man returns to his old high school to coach its failing basketball team.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Todd Stashwick

finding the way back poster

With his 2011 film Warrior, director Gavin O'Connor gave us the best Rocky movie not to feature Rocky. Boxing may have been swapped out for Mixed Martial Arts, but the sentiment remained. With Warrior, as Stallone did all those decades ago, O'Connor keyed into the idea of working class men using sport as a means of therapy, as two estranged brothers and their even more alienated father were reunited through the former pair battling their way through a tournament, inevitably coming up against each other in a tear-jerking final bout. Previously, O'Connor had established his sports movie credentials with the 2004 ice hockey drama, Miracle, a classic underdog-rises-up story. With his latest film, Finding the Way Back (released in the US as simply 'The Way Back'), O'Connor combines both the sport-as-therapy element of Warrior with the underdog narrative of Miracle.

A career best Ben Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a functioning alcoholic who sneaks the odd drop of vodka while working construction during the day, and spends his nights getting rat-arsed to the point where he has to be carried home from his local bar. Sometimes he foregoes the bar and stews at home in his own sweat. In a nicely observed montage, we watch as Jack goes through his routine of taking a can of beer from the fridge and putting it in the freezer, letting it cool while he polishes off another can.

finding the way back review

Clearly troubled by some ambiguous demons - which the film doesn't reveal until halfway through, so I'll keep quiet about them here - Jack does his best to avoid the company of his concerned family and ex-wife (Janina Gavankar). They seem to give him a pass for his obnoxious self-centred behaviour, which suggests he's gone through some heavy emotional toil.

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Jack is surprised to receive an offer from Bishop Hayes, the Catholic high school where his name is still spoken in legendary terms as the greatest basketball player it ever produced (Really? A white guy? Well I guess it is a Catholic school). They want him to coach their ailing basketball team. At first he's reluctant, but something within him compels him to take on the role. So begins the classic tale of a pathetic sports team finding a winning mentality and rising through their league, along with Jack discovering a path back to a life with purpose.

finding the way back review

There are few cultures in the world where men don't use sport and alcohol as a way of avoiding thinking about bigger issues (the night my father died, I got very drunk and watched a football match), but is one really any better than the other? I guess sport won't ruin your liver, but it's still a distraction nonetheless. Finding the Way Back views Jack's coaching as the therapy he needs to move on from his initially ambiguous grief, yet while he may be committing to something bigger than himself, he's still sweeping his psychological problems under the carpet. In terms of dealing with his issues, is coaching a struggling basketball team really any more productive than getting drunk at a bar? At least with a few drinks in him he might feel able to open up to some fellow barfly or some long-suffering barman. Therein lies the difference between American and Northern European attitudes to drinking. The US still hasn't shaken off its puritanical ideas when it comes to alcohol, which is still viewed as a devilish drink, so it's no surprise when a movie like Finding the Way Back displays such a lack of nuance in this regard.

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It's rare that an American movie feels so culturally alien in this homogenous era, but you have to take off your Northern European glasses and view this through an American lens. Putting aside any doubts you might have about Jack's new coping mechanism, this is a highly enjoyable sports movie. Sure, it ticks all the clichéd boxes when it comes to the unlikely rise of its underdog athletes, but it's Affleck's sweaty presence that adds a new texture to this well-worn narrative. His Jack uses basketball coaching as a means of getting all his pent-up aggression out, swearing like a trooper on the sidelines, which doesn't go down well with his Catholic employers. Along with Jack's redemption arc, it feels like we're watching Affleck himself become reborn after a couple of decades of wandering in the desert of Hollywood mediocrity. He brilliantly portrays the pain we feel when receiving a lecture from someone whom we know to be right, but to whom we refuse to listen.

finding the way back review

If you're looking for a movie that captures the subtleties and intricacies of basketball, well, that's not really the point here. Any team sport could have been inserted here, as this is a movie about Jack's road to recovery more so than his team's rise up the leagues. O'Connor makes an important choice as to how to present the basketball matches, focussing not on specific on-court action but rather on montages that visually convey the energy and emotion of the games. In musical terms, it's The Red Shoes, not The Band Wagon. O'Connor is more interested in the psychology of sport than its physicality, which makes it accessible for a general audience.

If I have a complaint about Finding the Way Back, and this is a rare complaint in this age of bloated runtimes, it's that it feels like it needs another half hour to tie up its subplots. Along with Jack's story, we get mini-arcs involving some of the young men under his charge, and one in particular, concerning a layabout who seems to be battling his own demons, simply disappears with no real resolution. There's an old-timer who carries Jack home from the pub every night, having previously looked after his father in the same way, and I really wanted him to get his own moment. Equally, Jack's own narrative is rushed towards a cathartic climax in a final act that plays like an editor struggling to meet a designated runtime. Ultimately, O'Connor's film has the sort of abrupt denouement that would be perfect if this were the pilot for a TV show, but as a movie it needs a little more room to breathe.

Finding the Way Back is on UK/ROI VOD from July 10th.

2020 movie reviews