Finding the Way Back review – Ben Affleck battles alcoholism and formula

Ben Affleck's performance as a high school basketball coach just about rescues a film that's too scared to break from cliché

Few actors have reinvented themselves as many times as Ben Affleck. Over the years, the Boston native been considered a bad actor, a good actor, a good director, a bad director, a talented writer, a hack, a sad sack (birthing some notable memes), and now, somehow, has entered a period where all these things seem to be true at once. For his career, though, is such reputation-based malleability necessarily a bad thing?

Finding the Way Back has not been positioned as a Ben Affleck comeback vehicle, exactly, but instead as a deeply “personal” film that seems to consider – though not directly – the recent, well-publicised fallout of his real life, including his divorce with actor Jennifer Garner, his battle with alcoholism, and accusations of sexual misconduct: filmmaking as therapy, if you will.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a construction worker with a drinking problem. He's the kind of guy who is functioning well enough on the outside, but masking a deep sadness within. His sister (Michaela Watkins) is worried. Life means very little to Jack, who has a tragic past, and wasted potential. Then comes an opportunity to coach the basketball team at his old high school. Turns out Jack was once a star player himself. After the obligatory scene in which he turns the job down, he reconsiders – why, we're never told – and is faced with an unruly squad of teenage boys who could do with an authority figure.

There are few movie premises as tried and tested and – let's face it – worthy of parody than that of “sad man coaches high school sports team.” In fact, it's a pretty ballsy move that any film should even attempt such a thing in 2020. But this is a picture that seems to understand it is entirely formulaic but wants to use the basketball story as mere window dressing for a character study of a man on the brink. If Jack can control his team, he can control himself. Subtle.

Affleck appears uncharacteristically puffy faced and oddly bloated. His skin is patchy. He looks like Ben Affleck, sort of, but also what you might imagine a third, non-famous Affleck brother to look like if he'd decided to start an acting career well into his forties. It's difficult to know whether to admire his willingness to turn up on set looking like this, or pity him. The idea was probably that we do both.

Yet despite Affleck's dedicated and downtrodden turn there is something so overtly familiar about the story beats here that it frustrates as much as it compels, your response wholly dependent on whether you think what the actor is doing justifies the film's existence. And what is he doing? Essentially, undoing everything you thought you knew about Ben Affleck; an attempt to efface the inherent charisma, the Hollywood star power, the years of playing ice cold professionals and the most famous superhero on the planet.

Gavin O'Connor, the definition of a journeyman filmmaker, directs with an almost aggressive adequacy, draining the film of colour – and life. The script, lacking finer details, settles for broad strokes in its depiction of alcoholism and bereavement, while a Social Network-like soundtrack strains to connect with what's happening on screen. Supporting characters – played by Janina Gavankar and Al Madrigal – are rendered as mere sketches, while the players themselves fall into the background and end up as caricatures.

A riskier movie – one with genuine stakes and interesting narrative diversions made in the vein of, say, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler – might have taken these elements and delivered something genuinely hard-hitting and perhaps even frightening. Affleck's performance, though effective, isn't quite the slam dunk needed to prevent Finding the Way Back from feeling like two hours of dribbling with the ball.

Finding the Way Back is now streaming on VOD platforms.

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