Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 2, 2020)
We can forgive moviegoers who thought 2020’s The Way Back offered a sequel to 2013’s The Way Way Back, given the obvious similarities of their titles. However, since the 2013 film only made $26 million worldwide, it likely enjoyed too few viewers for its memory to make a dent.
Not that the 2020 movie did any better, as instead, it fared even worse, with a global take of only $14 million. However, unlike its predecessor, Way Back gets an asterisk, as it came out very close to the date when theaters closed down due to COVID-19, and attendance already declined precipitously by that point.
Would Way Back have become a smash without a pandemic? Probably not, but it nonetheless appears to qualify as one of the virus’s cinematic victims.
In his youth, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) excelled as the star player on the basketball team at Bishop Hayes High School, but rather than pursue a college career, he simply walked away from the game. Decades later, Jack deals with alcoholism, a broken marriage and an unfulfilling life.
Out of the blue, Father Edward Devine (John Aylward) offers Jack the job as head coach of the Bishop Hayes basketball squad. Their coach suffers a heart attack, so in need of a new leader, Farther Devine turns to their most notable former player.
Despite major misgivings, Jack takes the job and finds himself confronted by a pretty terrible team. He attempts to help the teens achieve while he also tries to get his own life back into shape.
I can’t name the first-ever movie to offer an inspirational sports-related tale, but to say the least, the genre got beaten into cliché submission years ago. While we still get good entries in the field, most suffer from trite, sentimental tendencies.
Given the presence of Gavin O’Connor as director, though, I went into Back with some optimism. O’Connor also helmed 2011’s Warrior, another movie that used sports as the backdrop for a narrative about redemption.
Warrior benefited from an understated sense of honesty as well as an excellent cast. Though not on the same level, Back enjoys the same positives.
If we play the comparison game, Back falls short simply because it lacks the same talent in front of the camera. Warrior featured Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and an Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte, while Back comes with Affleck and a bunch of lesser-known actors.
Not that the latter factor means the performers don’t come with skills, of course – I don’t want to seem “fame-ist”. But Warrior came more top-heavy in terms of talent, partly because it required more from its cast.
Whereas Warrior came with two leads and one major supporting character, Back almost wholly focuses on Jack, a factor that thrusts Affleck to the fore. Given his inconsistent work over the decades, this inspires a bit of trepidation.
Happily, Affleck does well in the part. He finds Jack’s inner demons but doesn’t overdo them, and this allows him to create a believable performance.
O’Connor also keeps the movie within the bounds of reality. Like Warrior, we get a story about sports that isn’t really about sports, as basketball exists here as a means to an end.
Of course, we find ourselves interested in the journey the high school team takes, and when they inevitably improve, we get the requisite boost. However, their success connects more to our view of Jack in recovery, so our stake in the squad’s victories comes mainly due to our connection to the lead.
Back feels a little rushed in its third act, as if O’Connor wanted more breathing room but thought he needed to accelerate toward the finale. Nonetheless, the movie does much more right than wrong, so it becomes an effective, engaging drama.