Jack Cunningham was an HS basketball phenom who walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Years later, when he reluctantly accepts a coaching job at his alma mater, he may get one last shot at redemption.
Like many redemption-via-sports movies, Finding The Way Back is less about looking outwards at the court, track or sports field and all about looking inwards, learning to value yourself. I’m not going to lie though – it will certainly help if you understand basketball, or the team tactics Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham throws out on the court will be entirely baffling.
Like Greyhound last week, where the dialogue was often impenetrable warship jargon, once I put the subtitles on everything became much more enjoyable. Combined with the visible passion from shouter-in chief Ben Affleck, I always knew what he was angry about this time (opposing coach / opposing team / wrongly awarded penalty).
That Finding The Way Back unfolds in such a very familiar way also helped, though it means the film never hits the heights it could. The performances are terrific; the story beats are old hat. Affleck is compelling as alcoholic ex-basketball star Jack Cunningham, dragged out of his personal mire to coach the now listless team at his old high school; the young actors playing the key movers in his team are engaging and believable.
I am not particularly into sports, films about sports, films about redemption via sports or indeed Ben Affleck, added to which basketball doesn’t have nearly the same cultural resonance in the UK as in America. Still, I did grow up in Newcastle and while I don’t like football either (yes, they did banish me down South) I do get the appeal, and the opportunities it offers for structure, a family and escape.
Jack is a long way from his sporting glory days when Father Devine, a fixture of his old Catholic high school, calls him in to try to persuade him to take the suddenly-vacant post of school basketball coach. Jack has never coached before and lacks confidence that he could even try; at home afterwards he practices saying no while getting through endless beers.
He takes it of course, heading back to his alma mater and instantly understanding what has gone wrong and how it can be fixed. The ’90s plaques on the wall of the high school basketball court, listing his achievements, both give him kudos with the young players and remind him of how much he has thrown away.
Harder to deal with are the adults who remember him as he was. The team too has fallen on hard times. There are only nine in the regular team when in Jack’s day 100 would try out. It’s lost its sheen and is no longer a draw for its student spectators, though that changes once they start – yes! – winning again.
It’s fair to say Finding The Way Back relies on familiar tropes get us through. Jack drinks beer in the shower, and pours it into his coffee cup at his construction job. He lies to his family that all is well. His marriage has broken up, and his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) is moving on; it turns out they lost their only child. “I never stop being angry” he says to her about their son Michael’s death from cancer.
The teens he now has to work with include Marcus (a nicely-judged performance from Melvin Gregg) who takes things too easy, and their best player Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who could go on to greatness but whose father is unsympathetic to a career based on basketball. (Fellow teammate Kenny is the light relief – a massive hit with the ladies, he’s always to be found chatting them up when he should be getting on the team bus.)
It’s an agreeable formula and I quite enjoyed being manipulated as each easily predictable twist popped up, made more engaging because the performances are so sweet and thoughtful.
Affleck’s problems with alcohol are well-documented. What he highlights so well in Finding The Way Back is the search for a way to numb pain, the humiliation, the “vicious circle” of addiction and how success is often small-scale and low-key. That downward spiral takes Jack further away from any chance of getting back to the sport he knows so well and has the potential to save him. (It’s a brave choice for Affleck, though sometimes facing something at a step removed adds clarity.)
Jack remains a fishwife on the court (I did love the school chaplain, constantly trying to stop both the kids and Jack swearing as the pressure rises). He screws up a lot, is selfish and remains an out of shape 30-something in checked shirts.
The film ends on an optimistic but realistic note; with small scale triumphs that make up the long slow climb back up to the air of an ordinary life after thrashing around in the waters of addiction.
Watch the trailer below and scroll down for more…:
How does it end?
Jack starts drinking again when a child who was in hospital with Michael suffers a relapse. Jack gets drunk, crashes his car while taking a woman home, then when trying to get into her house goes into the wrong one. The homeowner kicks him down the steps and he ends up in hospital. His sister makes him get help and he becomes an inpatient at a therapy centre.
The film doesn’t finish with some huge court victory; we don’t know if they win their place in the play-offs (though it’s implied they do), but his team vow to win for him.
Brandon’s dad and brothers also turn up to watch the game – his dad had felt basketball was no way to base your future on.
At the end of the film, as the game proceeds, Jack – in the residential facility – picks up a ball and heads to the outdoor basketball court above the ocean, where he plays alone.