Friday, March 27, 2020

Film Review: The Way Back

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

For much of this movie I thought, "This is a better Christian movie than most Christian movies."
The Way Back is a heart-wrenching tale about Jack (Ben Affleck), an alcoholic construction worker whose glory days as a star high-school basketball player are far behind him.  With a broken marriage and a worsening addiction, out of the blue he is asked by his old pastor (John Aylward) to coach the high school's wayward basketball team.  Jack knows he's unqualified, but after a lot of drinking and reluctance, he accepts.  Perhaps deep down he knows that this might be his only way out of his death spiral.  He works with the affable assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), to help him whip this team into shape.  The film focuses on a handful of the underachieving kids.  Jack is bombastic and undisciplined.  But he loves the game and he demands excellence from his athletes, all the while battling with his inner demons.

As a sports movie, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  I even found myself inadvertently doing a fist pump as the team scored a critical point.  Without even realizing it, I became as invested in their victories as they were.  A lot of credit goes to director Gavin O'Connor for his ability to make the game not only visually dynamic but dramatically interesting.

But the heart of the story is Jack and his potential redemption.  There wasn't a single time I wasn't pulling for Jack to overcome, even when he was behaving like a grade-A jerk.  The movie wisely understands that even if a character isn't the most likable, we have to empathize with them if the journey will have any meaning for the audience.  The movie surrounded by subtle and not-so-subtle Catholic imagery and symbolism that I couldn't help but feel the deep spiritual connection between overcoming addiction and overcoming sin.  In many ways, the struggle is the same.    But this is not a sanitized, G-rated faith film.  Jack is vulgar and sometimes violent.  He is not a saint, just a sinner who is trying.  He is also someone who has lost all faith and this despair fuels his self-destruction. 

One of the things that this film does that not a lot of similar sports films do is that it clearly makes a distinction between the sports victories and the addiction victories.  Often movies like this tie the two things together, which makes things neat and incredibly cathartic.  The Way Back refuses to give you a simple solution and resolution.  I'm not saying this is good or bad, but the movie is not simple.  That is because the movie is about the struggle.

Jack gets his players to struggle because he knows that is when they will grow.  When playing against a superior team, Jack tells his players that they have more heart because they've had to earn it.  Jack doesn't take excuses and he wants every last ounce of devotion from his player, not to him, but to the game.  He is vulgar and clumsy about it at first, but you can feel the bond grow organically.  As a result, his player begin to grow, to mature into young men.  There's even a funny bit where the whole team shames one of their players because of how he treats women.  The point of the game is not to forge great players.  Instead through the struggle for excellence, they hope to create great men.

In terms of greatness, this is one Affleck's best performances.  I never found his performance showy.  Instead, you could feel the depths behind his restraint.  He made Jack someone you know.  Jack is your friend, who you love and enjoy even with all of his flaws.  And there is a stoic, masculine silence that is alternatively admirable and infuriating.  But when the dam breaks, it is devastating.  The other actors do a good job as well.  The players are a little rough around the edges, but I found them to behave in a way that was genuine to my experience as a high school teacher. 

As a Catholic, I loved how respectfully the Church was portrayed.  As mentioned before, Jack has lost all faith.  When you follow the story with his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) you begin to understand why.  I kept waiting for the sucker punch that I am used to for most Hollywood films where the clergy would be shown as hypocritical and vicious.  But thankfully that never came.  As I said, for most of this movie, it was a better Christian film than most.  But it does dip into the muck and mire in a way that doesn't fully deliver on its thematic promise.  If our characters emerge better, they do not emerge saints.  This brings me back to my dilemma when reviewing Bohemian Rhapsody: is partial redemption something to celebrate or is it tragic because it is not complete?

I will leave that up to you, dear viewer.  I do recommend this film.  I was moved and touched by the all-too-human struggles we have when we fall from grace and try, hoping against hope, to find the way back.

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