The road to recovery has two lanes (albeit, one with more traffic than the other) in Ben Affleck’s basketball drama Finding the Way Back. This isn’t a redemption story for Jack Cunningham – the struggling basketball coach, who finds his defence against grief at the bottom of a beer glass – but also Affleck himself. The actor/director’s battle with alcohol has been public for some time now, which makes his choice to tackle a role that is so close to home not just brave, but a clear effort of catharsis for all the world to see. It makes for a heart-wrenching viewing at times, but for that same reason certifies the role as what is without question, one of Affleck’s greatest performances to date. The problem that in a film focuses on teamwork, and accepting a helping hand, it can’t put into practice what it preaches.
Director Gavin O’Connor reunites with Affleck four years after their ho-hum hitman film, The Accountant and makes a comeback of their own on all counts. Opening Finding the Way Back to what we could easily mistake for his Good Will Hunting Chuckie years after he gave his friend a good talking to, Affleck’s Cunningham is a worn down construction worker, who we see either drinking from, or pouring into any receptacle within arm’s reach. In the shower, to and from work, it’s just him and the nearest bottle drowning out any other contact from the rest of the world he’s refusing to respond to and it genuinely disheartening to see, and for good reason. There’s a clear effort in showing just how hard Cunningham’s daily trials are with O’Connor hitting it with the same intensity he did with Nick Nolte’s Conlon Sr in Warrior (another actor who has struggled with alcoholism). Cunningham is a figure wrapped in aches and pains, both physical and mental, with the biggest challenge proving to those that do get close to him that everything is fine, when it absolutely isn’t. It’s only when he’s offered a job coaching the basketball team at his former high school, that he starts to crawl his way back out of the hole he’s found himself in, and the film as a whole switches to a more generic gear.
Here’s where Finding the Way Back finds itself (for the most part) wandering into familiar trappings that while tolerable, are frustrating for a film that has every opportunity to be more. The second Cunningham takes to the court, we’re treated to the rough-around-the-edges squad line up and you can see the game plan a mile off. There’s the showboating big mouth who needs to be put in check, the quiet leader that has all the traits to take them to the finals, and that all-important montage just around the corner. That’s not to say they aren’t successful in their execution, though. O’Connor’s knack of ramping up the tension for any sport caught on screen remains intact and you’ll be sucked in easily because of it, especially with the Rob Simonsen’s subtle score pounding during game time. The issues lie with the time off the court that the film struggles to keep itself together, simply because there’s so much that’s trying to be dealt with.
With all the threads linked to Cunningham’s troubles off the court, not all of them are as tightly bound to Affleck’s incredible performance as they could be. It’s clear where this worn-down coach is coming from and his reasoning for turning to drink, but these issues are slightly unbalanced and not as fleshed out by Ben Ingelsby’s script as he’s trying to make them. As a result, when Finding the Way Back does break from the typical sports movie finale you’d expect, it’s a surprising change, but not successful in its execution.
It’s this that knocks Finding the Way Back from being a champion film, to a runner-up. With a little more practice and better teamwork it had every right being as good as the smash-hit O’Connor was capable of. Instead, the weight is left on the shoulders of the film’s star player, with Affleck, who while clearly giving it his all, struggles to keep it together all the way through, until the final buzzer sounds.
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar