Dir: Gavin O’Connor. Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar. 15 cert, 108 mins.
Finding the Way Back is a strange concoction – a pained portrait of alcoholism thrust into the middle of a rousing sports yarn. A basketball star in high school, Jack (Ben Affleck) now lives under the ghostly thrall of addiction. All his days look the same. He’ll take a beer into the shower, then sneak a flask into work. At night, he’ll drink himself into oblivion at the local bar or by emptying his fridge at home – careful always to keep one can ready in the freezer. It’s a dull, poisonous routine.
But, in true Hollywood style, salvation arrives like a bolt from the blue. He’s asked to coach his former team, who haven’t made the playoffs since his own time on the court. With his tough-love approach and strategist’s mind, he moulds these dejected teens into star-athletes, recovering a small part of his former self along the way. They head off to achieve the improbable, while director Gavin O’Connor is left to deal with the strange dissonance that exists in-between underdog idealism and the messy truths of habituation. The latter is beautifully telegraphed by its lead actor.
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That idealism stems largely from Brad Ingelsby’s script, which relies heavily on narrative conveniences and melodramatic revelations. The team are blessed with a frictionless path to glory – in fact, it seems like they barely do any work to get there. Meanwhile, every part of Jack’s existence is given its own tragic backstory – why he gave up basketball, why his marriage fell apart, and why he’s fallen into such destructive patterns. By simplifying his pain, the film makes it so much easier to soothe.
With a couple of sports films (2004’s Miracle and 2011’s Warrior) already under his belt, O’Connor should presumably have handled Finding the Way Back’s match scenes with ease. But they feel flat and joyless, as if he’s tried to filter the entire Jack’s own numb perspective. Characters have a tendency to fade into the background – Brandon Wilson’s bashful point guard is the only one of the players with a substantive narrative arc. The rest are all broad sketches: the showboat, the lothario, the clown. Both Janina Gavankar, playing Jack’s ex-wife, and Michaela Watkins, playing his sister, are forced to cycle through their collection of concerned expressions. They’re given little to work with.
Affleck, at least, does his best to fill the dramatic vacuum at the centre of Finding the Way Back. His performance may not be showy, but it deftly captures how a sense of defeat can corrupt both the body and the mind. He moves through the world like he’s carrying every one of his traumas on a yoke. And while O’Connor and Ingelsby may document each pedestrian behaviour, it’s Affleck who works through them with resigned ritualism, repeating patterns to the point that they become automatic. He never seems fully aware of how much he’s drinking, as he firmly reassures those around him that he’s “fine”.
There will, inevitably, be those eager to discuss whether the actor drew from his own experiences of addictive behaviour, having openly discussed the topic in the run-up to the film’s release. But to obsess over personal biography detracts from the forcefulness of his work. For all the film’s contrivances, Affleck still draws us into the lost soul at its centre.