Ben Affleck is impressive in The Way Back as an alcoholic basketball coach

Ben Affleck in The Way Back. Picture: Richard Foreman Jr/Warner Bros
Ben Affleck in The Way Back. Picture: Richard Foreman Jr/Warner Bros

The Way Back (M)

3 stars

Ben Affleck hasn't had as much luck as his friend Matt Damon. Although Affleck is a force behind the camera - he and Damon won a best original screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting and he's directed a few films including the Oscar-winning film Argo - his onscreen career has been more uneven than that of Damon with some very poor movies like Surviving Christmas and the notorious flop Gigli (to be fair, Damon the lhas had his share of duds, but they seem to have affected his career less).

Affleck also seems to have had more of a rocky personal life than Damon, including well-publicised relationship dramas, battles with alcoholism, and stints in rehab.

All of this backstory plays into Affleck's role in The Way Back - which, apparently, began filming the day after he left rehab for the third time.

It surely contributed to what is one of his best performances, even if the film itself is a solid character study and a fairly predictable sports drama rather than a masterpiece.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a basketball star at his Catholic high school who turned down a university sports scholarship and abandoned the game. Now, years later, he's a construction worker in Los Angeles who spends his nights drinking heavily, whether in a bar or alone at home (even in the shower).

His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) is worried about his isolation and his mental and physical condition and so is his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) - with whom he shared a terrible experience that contributed to their split.

A phone call one day breaks into his dreary, dead-end existence. The head basketball coach at his old school has dropped out and the parish priest asks Jack to come back and take over the job. He's initially reluctant but, having little else in his life, soon agrees.

The school can barely field a team now and the boys who are playing are an undisciplined lot varying widely in talent and attitude. Jack has to get them to work effectively together while struggling with his own problems in the process.

His aggressive attitude and foul mouth are a problem for the school - will he be able to curb them, and his addiction, to improve the team and give it a shot at victory?

The Way Back has some heavy echoes of the 1986 basketball film Hoosiers - the sports film is a genre with its own set of tropes and cliches - but its strong focus on the principal character's journey is a point of differentiation. It's downbeat in tone and style and feel.

Director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor (who previously directed Affleck in The Accountant ) and co-writer Brad Inglesby don't always take the easy or predictable routes and the dark cinematography Eduard Grau (Boy Erased) helps gives the film an unglamorous, realistic feel.

The basketball scenes feel scrappy and unpolished, fitting in with the style, and even those of us unfamiliar with the game can follow enough to get the idea of what's happening.

One of the problems of the film is that a lot of characters and their stories pop in and out, inevitably leading to a lack of depth. Very few of the boys on the team are given much in the way of individual characterisation and the ones that are tend towards cliche - the brat who's kicked off the team for his attitude and begs for a second chance; the poor kid whose talent is overlooked by his father.

But it's really a showcase for Affleck, and a good one.

This story Affleck shines in sports drama first appeared on The Canberra Times.