Finding the Way Back Review
Put your hand up if you’ve seen this before; a man down on his luck and well into his fifth beer of the night stumbles out of a bar, supported by another punter in a fit of drunken glory. Next morning, the man, Jack (Ben Affleck) chugs a beer in the shower as he is an efficient man able to multitask. Or perhaps he just can’t bear an hour without the comfortable haze provided by hops and malts. Jack may be an alcoholic, but he used to be a somebody and Finding the Way Back is a film all about Jack finding and re-connecting with that old self; someone successful and more importantly, meaningful to others.
Gavin O’Connor’s film gives us nothing we haven’t seen before, story-wise at least. In fact, it would will make a fine double feature with O’Connor’s 2011 powerhouse film Warrior. Both deal with sports, the dangers of alcohol and families, but Finding the Way Back has one ace up its sleeve that might give it a slight edge over other, traditional sports films; Ben Affleck. Affleck has been off his game recently, turning in sloppy and often yawn-inducing performances in films like The Accountant (also directed by O’Connor) and Triple Frontier. But much like David Fincher, who used Affleck’s suspiciously handsome and innocent looks to his advantage in Gone Girl, O’Connor utilises the actor’s own, well-known public struggles with alcoholism to power his otherwise mediocre sports drama.
Alcohol-fuelled days are now the new normal for Jack who is offered a chance to return to his former high school to be a basketball coach. He ultimately accepts and what follows is a tired story about an underdog sports team, filled with young men looking for a father figure, and a coach looking for a second chance in life, but it’s elevated by the raw and honest performance by Affleck. It reminds us of how natural and charming he can be onscreen and the actor simply shines, especially during the film’s quieter, more affecting moments.
It only stumbles when it settles into the traditional sports movie narrative involving the team Jack coaches. The story never resonates quite as much as Jack’s internal struggles and the predictability of the film makes it feel stale and pointless. Is there really no alternative take or angle to this important yet familiar story? While there are some heavy-handed attempts to complicate the narrative and to explain Jack’s alcoholism, they come across as cheap ways to pry tears or sympathy out of the audience rather than truly necessary emotional beats to the story.
O’Connor and cinematographer Eduard Grau utilise organic and natural cinematography, tied together by rapid editing to give the film an urgent feel. The score by Rob Simonsen is peaceful, if manipulative, and has that same sense of unfiltered passion and devastation that made Warrior such an engaging film. There is something strangely comforting in such an old-school film like this, about a man seeking solace in a bottle, attempting to find some sort of peace. This film soars when it lets Affleck play a version of himself and use the medium as a way to find solace and forgiveness, much like Shia LaBeouf did with Honey Boy, but ultimately Finding the Way Back remains trapped in the genre conventions of a sports film rather than being able to rise up to the occasion.
Finding the Way Back is available digitally on July 10.