The Plot: At one point in his life, Jack (Ben Affleck) had everything going for him. In High School, he was the basketball player of the year and was well-regarded among his peers. Then adult life came crashing in with the death of his father, a failed marriage with Angela (Janina Gavankar) and a lost son. He walked away from the game and didn’t look back. Now middle-aged, burnt out and recovering from an alcohol addiction, Jack is a shadow of the man he once was. There’s always another shot at the hoop though, a chance to get back in the game. When he’s approached by his former High School to coach their fledgling basketball team, he at first resists. However, the chance to pass on his knowledge of the game and shape these young men into a successful team is too good to pass up…
The Verdict: Some films deserve a second shot at glory, much like the main character Jack in Finding The Way Back. The latest film from Warrior director Gavin O’Connor was a casualty of COVID-19 at the US box office, quickly making its way to an online release there. Now it has found a similar home on our shores which is a shame. This is the kind of mature, intelligent filmmaking that makes going to the cinema so precious right now. The original title was The Has-Been, a more direct title which masks the fact that our main character is also an always-was. There’s more to Jack than meets the eye.
At face value, it’s an uplifting sports movie combined with a character piece. A troubled man is brought in to shake things up in a struggling High School basketball team. We’ve seen that kind of film before (e.g. Coach Carter) and to some degree Finding The Way Back follows the tried-and-tested formula of the sports movie. There’s the Catholic High School management who have their ideas of on-court behaviour, causing friction with Jack. There’s the star player who needs an extra push to be the team leader he’s meant to be. There’s even the volatile player who has real potential – but only if he can focus his energies properly on the basketball court. They’re a good team, but they need to be better in order to win and Jack is the answer.
So far, so predictable. However, this is not your average sports movie. If anything, it’s not even really about basketball. A better-than-average sports movie should offer more than just a token victory for the team. That’s what this film offers, a contemplative character study of a man who says he has a full life in early scenes but this is far from the truth. Jack is a man haunted by his own demons, unable to exorcise them and leave the past behind where it belongs. O’Connor and writer Brad Ingelsby spend a good amount of the film’s running time burrowing into what makes Jack tick. This is where Ben Affleck raises his – and the film’s – game.
As if haunted by his own struggles with alcohol addiction and his dark years in the 2000s before re-inventing himself as a well-regarded director, Affleck draws from this deep well for a powerhouse of a performance. It’s his best in years, raw and honest enough to suggest Jack has still got that magic touch on the court to anchor him even when his swirling personal life lacks control. A solid supporting cast back him up too, rounding off a satisfying character journey that is less a comeback and more a genuine shot at redemption. O’Connor’s focused direction and ability to steer the film on the right path means that it shoots straight right through to the closing shot. Worth seeking out for Affleck’s Oscar-worthy performance alone.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
”Finding The Way Back” is available to rent on Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) in Ireland NOW from participating digital retailers.
Finding The Way Back (USA / 15A / 108 mins)
In short: Shoots straight
Directed by Gavin O'Connor.
Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson.