Back in 2006, Ben Affleck was on the big screen in Hollywoodland, seen at the time as his comeback role after the Bennifer whirlwind and which culminated six years later with the multi-award winning Argo. There’s more than a whiff of a comeback about his latest offering, Finding The Way Back, a film that follows a somewhat fallow period post-Batman, echoes his own, well documented personal problems and has a title that’s more than a little apt.
The set-up merges an under-dog sports drama with a father and son story. It’s a potentially powerful combination, tailor-made to play on your emotions and director, Gavin O’Connor, who worked with Affleck on The Accountant, makes no apology for aiming at them throughout. The under-dogs in question are the basketball team at Bishops Hayes High School, no-hopers in a league that’s every bit as competitive as a professional one. They get a new coach, ex-pupil Jack Cunningham (Affleck), a former pro who threw it all away and now spends his days on a construction site and his evenings in a dive bar, before demolishing a tray of beer at home. Reluctant to take on the job, he’s more at home as a coach than he anticipates, moulding a disparate group of teenagers into a team so that they have a realistic shot at the league finals. But the demons that haunt him – the drink, his past and his failed marriage – are never far from the surface and threaten to derail everything.
A film like this leans heavily on its central character and the focus is very much on Jack, his redemption arc and his lingering personal problems, the origins of which only become clear late on in the film. But there’s enough space in the script for us to get to know at least a handful of the basketball team, particularly Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who finds his voice, literally and figuratively, and turns out to have a home life that mirrors Jack’s younger years. While the man himself is a mess, his relationship with ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) isn’t entirely washed up, even though she crushes his hopes of a second chance. He feels things deeply, bottling up his hurt but finding an outlet with the basketball team, passionately encouraging and berating them in equal measure on court, be it in practice or at a match.
And the basketball is thrilling. The team grows in confidence, the results start to come in – close wins, but wins nonetheless – and the scenes feel real. The fans, the refs, the opposing teams – they’re all convincing and exciting, so you follow the scoreboard like a hawk. Sadly that sense of reality doesn’t spill into other areas of the film, especially when it comes to Jack. We see the extent of his alcohol consumption – that can of beer in the shower – but, as he becomes more absorbed in coaching the team, he gives up drinking. Except that going cold turkey should affect him and there’s no sign of it at all. O’Connor and co-writer Brad Ingelsby definitely drop the ball here, and again in the final section of the film which uncomfortably switches to an almost schmaltzy tone.
Ultimately a redemption story, Finding The Way Back is the opportunity Affleck has needed for a while, one that allows him to show complexity and depth in a character who isn’t always especially sympathetic. While the film has plenty going for it – Rob Simonsen’s score is another plus point – its shortcomings make it frustratingly uneven. But for Affleck, it comes close to being a triumph.
Finding The Way Back is on video on demand from 10 July.