The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

TBT: Hoosiers (1986)

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Well hello there. Welcome to a new month of some blasts from the past, and this time we indeed do have a few of those. I’d like to officially welcome you to NBApril. The NBA Playoffs are just around the corner at the end of this month. One film that comes to mind that is a great ambassador for the sports genre is the highly improbable story of an Indiana high school basketball squad that defies all odds to compete in the state title game. With impacting performances, a strong sense of nostalgia for a more simple time, and a wonderful if not familiar story, this week’s entry quickly gets us into the spirit of the post-season. 

Today’s food for thought: Hoosiers.

Hoosiers

Release: November 14, 1986

[DVD]

Welcome to humble old Hickory, Indiana, a hardened agricultural community that comes together every fall to get behind their high school basketball team, the Hickory Hoosiers. Small-town Indiana isn’t the kind of place that takes quickly, if at all, to the idea of change or going against the grain of tradition and routine. Getting set in a certain way gives the impression of consistency and stability. But when a new head coach is hired to coach the boys and he is anything but their ideal candidate, how will the town cope with the choice they are more or less forced to accept?

To put it insanely complicatedly, David Anspaugh’s riveting sports drama Hoosiers is a classic. One cannot think of a basketball movie and not have the iconic images found in this love-letter to the fifties in mind almost immediately. The throwback look and tones in his film recall a much more simple time, but it’s not so old-school as to avoid being relatable. It tells the story of a very unlikely high school team that goes on to compete in the Indiana State Championship game, adding in a few excellent twists on the conceit and establishing a strong sense of nostalgia not to be forgotten by those who have seen it.

The modest school had been looking for a new coach, when they finally came across Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)’s résumé. Dale was a man with an interesting reputation, with his last job ending in a firing for physically abusing his players. He arrived in Hickory, somewhat hat-in-hand, knowing his old friend Cletus (Sheb Wooley) would approve of his credentials.

But no sooner the news of the hiring broke out did Coach Dale get mobbed with questions from the inquisitive community at an impromptu town meeting held at the barber shop (of all places). From the get-go it’s apparent the outsider never had made friends quickly, and with this particularly opinionated crowd, Dale drove a much harder bargain by being short on words and light on reassurance that he was on their side. The way in which he performed his job would prove to be an even bigger shock, though the film’s overriding tension is established in the aforementioned scene.

Hickory High is a town so small its basketball team originated with seven players. On the first day of practice Coach let two of them go since they refused to pay attention while he was addressing them. It would be but one of many instances of him demonstrating his desire to control and drive his basketball team hard. He had purpose in Indiana, and was willing to do whatever it took to prove he had coaching chops despite what his personality may have lacked. Thanks to Gene Hackman’s committed performance, Dale was portrayed as a man with a fiercely competitive spirit that bordered on obsessive. It’s his clash with the community and the odds that were stacked against him personally that made Hoosiers such an engaging watch.

Though Hackman brought on a tour de force performance playing the controversial high school head coach, there was a second contribution that stood out as particularly memorable and emotional. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Coach Dale approached one of his player’s fathers, the town alcoholic Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper) and requested he become the team’s assistant coach. It was an offer not without strings attached, however. Dale informed Shooter he would need to clean up his act in order to be present at the games. It’s a memorable scene given Hoosier’s undeniable thematic search for second-chance opportunities. For Shooter, this was his own pivotal moment of redemption.

But for the young squad, their moment of redemption was standing behind a coach frowned upon by the entire Hickory community. During a second community meeting at town hall, in which a vote was to be taken regarding the future of Coach Dale as head coach, his players decided in order to do the impossible this season it would have to be with him and no one else. While it may be the movie’s most outstanding cliché, it hardly feels like one at the time. The team unity from this point on is actually incredibly inspiring. The Hickory Hoosiers proved almost everyone wrong as they advanced further in the tournament, eventually stunning the state by proving themselves worthy of a trip to Indianapolis to face the much more athletic and physically dominant team from South Bend.

Anspaugh did little with his direction to sway opinion on the film’s tendency to walk a cliched path. It’s very easy to set this fact aside, though, when the performances and circumstances were this good. Hackman is eminently watchable as the rough Coach Dale. The kids are a likable bunch of no-named actors who provided just enough charisma to give the illusion they were all the actual basketball team who accomplished the unthinkable. The illusion is one to be watched again and again. On top of being a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the fifties, Hoosiers has incredible relevance. Though it was made in the 1980s, it’s unrelenting passion and focus on the game withstands the test of time as it seems just as inspirational a film for coaches to show their teams before competing in this year’s Final Four games as it probably was in the decade it came out in.

Exciting, engaging and tremendously earnest, this is a sure-footed underdog story that remains to this day a thoroughly investing and nostalgic watch. It’s one that can be enjoyed again and again, especially this time of year.

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4-5Recommendation: Though it undoubtedly helps to be a follower of the sport, Hoosiers compels as a true story dramatization even for non-fans. It’s beautifully shot and is imbued with a heartwarming tone that allows its central performances to truly flourish. If you want to talk classic basketball films, let’s talk Hoosiers.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com