This is bound to sound like news from another time and place: there's a new Ben Affleck movie. Finding the Way Back - simply The Way Back in the U.S. - would have been no more than makeweight screenfiller in any normal summer: it's another of those uplifting triumph-over-adversity sports dramas that typically play to bigger crowds in the States than they have done over here. Yet if it never deviates too far from the formulaic, its careful, attentive handling reminds us there are reasons why this formula works and will work so long as there's an audience in need of a boost and a darkened room to screen (or stream) these stories in. We rejoin Affleck, now full-bearded and several stones heavier than usual, in the role of Jack Cunningham, a separated, sad-sack construction worker so woebegone he keeps a Bud in his shower soap rack, and the local liquor store owner knows him by name. That name, we gather, was a lot bigger in Jack's days as a high-school basketball star; the decline he's subsequently slumped into is momentarily paused when said alma mater invites him back to replace a coach who's succumbed to a heart attack. Initially, our guy is reluctant: "My life is full right now," he insists, while sitting alone in an ill-furnished apartment and washing down a microwaved burrito with what remains of a six-pack. The further he gets into the cups he uses to drown his sorrows, however, the more convinced he becomes of his ability to fulfil the post. His shirt will remain defiantly untucked, but he throws on a jacket and tie, shambles down to the court, and begins to whip the school's lippy, unruly, generally coasting playing roster into shape. Game on.
So we know exactly where it's headed: it'd be unlikely if Jack crashed and burned so badly that the final shot left him and the kids behind a dumper, huffing meths. It's to the credit of director Gavin O'Connor that the film isn't quite the done deal it might have presented as. O'Connor made one of the best sports movies of recent times in 2011's rock-'em-sock-'em MMA melodrama Warrior; here again, he demonstrates a sharp eye for both the very specific rhythms of the sporting arena (the crowds, the pageantry) and the wider, working-class communities to which these games, these rituals mean so much. (Why else would the Government have placed such emphasis on getting Premier League football back up and running in the middle of a crushing pandemic?) Brad Ingleby's rather flat screenplay may be following one template, but O'Connor takes much of his cue from Friday Night Lights, the superior Peter Berg gridiron drama that begat the much-laurelled television series. One immediate sign that the direction, at least, is on the right path, that O'Connor is keen to steer matters away from the Dangerous Minds-in-Air Jordans blandness that the set-up suggests: Affleck's Jack is allowed to spit and curse, as a barely functioning alcoholic might after being dragged in from the cold and presented with renewed responsibilities. Somebody involved with this production has been savvy enough to convert this pottymouthing into an amusing running joke ("I'm working on it." "Work harder.").
Finding the Way Back never approaches Warrior's tremendous emotional heft, and that's in part attributable to the fact basketball makes for a far less dramatic spectacle than brothers-in-arms having to kick and punch seven shades of what Jack Cunningham would almost certainly call shit out of one another. (The match scenes are less about tactics and plays than the electricity in the room, the potential for individual and collective change.) Yet there's a quiet, professional control about it that elevates the film above much studio filmmaking. For one thing, O'Connor doesn't labour the rebuilding motif, as I feared he might: he inserts one shot of Jack sitting halfway up a flight of steps at the halfway mark, then lets the story and character continue on their way. He knows that his star is prepared to do the necessary heavy lifting. Affleck struggles to sell us on the pep talks - seemingly cobbled together from those in a dozen other inspirational basketball dramas - but he manages to steer both that character and the movie away from the self-pity into which they could so easily have lapsed. Jack never gets so far away from his initial dishevelment that he becomes exemplary, or a safe bet. Early on, his sister (Michaela Watkins) tells him to wash his shower curtain as it stinks, and something of that accusation sticks to him. Our hero trails a whiff of mildew deep into the final act; even when sober, he's never entirely clean. Affleck makes us understand that this is a man who may simply have replaced the old beer buzz with the adrenalin rush of live sports - and that even the latter may not be enough when life becomes especially rough. We don't just have a new Ben Affleck movie, then, we have a fairly decent Ben Affleck movie. It's a start.
Finding the Way Back is now available to stream via Amazon Prime.