The Way Back ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Let me state first that I want this movie to be great more than anyone. The trailers have been on repeat in my apartment for weeks (sorry Chris.) I watch sports movies all the time because I am basically a 45 year old dad, emotionally speaking. Movies about people struggling under the weight of grief are 100% my shit. I am the target audience for this. I wanted so badly for it to be great. 

The problem The Way Back has is the problem every Gavin O’Conner sports movie has: it can’t fully connect the personal lives and the sports. In Miracle, it’s straight up the wrong choice for a protagonist. In Warrior, the lack of a fully realized backstory for the brothers undercut all the drama of the sporting event. In The Way Back, it never fully commits to what Jack’s problem really is. Is he grieving his family? Is he grieving his marriage? How do these things affect his relationship to the team beyond pulling him away from the thing that gets him back on his feet?

It feels like two entirely parallel films. One of these is Manchester by the Sea (failed marriage, dead kids); the other is basically Hoosiers (basketball coach redemption). It works if you pull elements from each, not when you cram in every storyline from each of them. O’Conner never finds a way to really connect the personal to the sport, to put Jack’s love of the sport fully at risk because of his personal choices. Often, important plot points just happen and we don’t totally understand the decisions because we don’t see the characters make them. And with so many story elements to address, most go unaddressed or are haphazardly tied off.

And it’s a big fucking bummer! This movie should be great! The sports stuff is so good! We get real character growth from all the characters in the second act because it’s all basketball and O’Conner is insanely good at character growth through action. But when the movie downshifts from a redemption sports film into an addiction drama, it almost comes unglued entirely. The final twenty minutes feel entirely unrelated to what we saw before it, even as it’s kind of set up. It has no bearing on the sports because the sport doesn’t really have any bearing on Jack. We never get the sense that this means the world to him and we absolutely need that as an audience. 

I focus on the negative here in part because, like all of O’Conner’s dramas, they get thisclose to being great. He’s a modern Ron Shelton by default, but he’d be a better Ron Shelton if he could just figure out how to make the puzzle fit together. And there are moments when he does. The ending, even if it’s not of a piece with the rest of it, is affecting (the specificity of it, oof). The side characters are all fun and playfully (if shallowly) drawn archetypes. The women all suck as written but that’s (frustratingly) unsurprising. Ben Affleck is Ben Affleck; he gets a few good moments and one great in-game moment. I liked the almost meta-runner with the game scores, as it basically acknowledges the structure of sports films and tries to get cute with it. There’s good bits in this, to be sure.

But it can’t put it all together and that really sucks man. I want all sports movies to be great; we get so few of them these days and most of them either don’t work or don’t do well at the box office. The trailers will still go down as two of my all time faves, but unfortunately, the movie is just middle of the road.

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