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  • Katie Bell

The Way Back (2020)

I didn't watch the trailer before going into this one, but I'd seen the poster and had read the blurb and it sounded like your run-of-the-mill basketball movie. "This better be a good basketball movie," Kevin said as the production company logos were shown. Well, it turns out, The Way Back is indeed a good movie, but it IS NOT a basketball movie. Not in the way I expected anyway.

There is no denying the fact that I was expecting a completely different film, and my first viewing experience was a little hindered by that. Despite the fact that this is a good film, I wasn't mentally prepared for what I ended up watching. The Event Cinemas application, contained the following blurb:

"A widowed, former basketball all-star lost family foundation in a struggle with addiction and attempts to comeback by becoming the coach of a disparate, ethnically mixed high school basketball team at his alma mater".

I'm going to rewrite this blurb, just so that you are more informed than I was, when I went to see this film. The new blurb is:

"A man, who recently separated from his wife, is struggling with grief, depression and alcoholism. He is temporarily distracted from his troubles, by a basketball coaching job at his alma mater, but ultimately needs to deal with the issues in his personal life head on, in order to move forward".

I repeat: NOT A BASKETBALL MOVIE. Also, where did "widowed" even come from? Who wrote that blurb? I'm clearly still salty, but like I said before, it is actually a good film, once you get over the lies in the blurb.

As I'm sure you've ascertained from the new and improved blurb, (you can hire me for blurb writing by reaching out through our contact application at this film is about Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) and his struggles with mental health, after the passing of a loved one. Jack is engaging in cyclical behaviour. He wakes up, drinks a shower beer, goes to work (and continues to drink), gets drunk at a local bar, stumbles home and passes out. Every day, he wakes up, and washes off the night before with a shower and a shower beer (#sadfleck). Jack's waking hours are painful ones, in which he pushes away those that are closest to him, and seemingly cannot cope unless he is under the influence. Huge credit needs to be given to Affleck, who is incredibly genuine in this role. Additionally, this script is well-written. Ultimately, this is Jack's story. The Way Back offers an intimate perspective on what it's like to grieve, what it's like to struggle with mental health, and what it's like to use alcohol to mask the pain. It's almost a character study, rather than a story with a beginning, middle and end. We are watching one part of Jack's life.

This movie is also filmed in such a way that it doesn't always feel like traditional story-telling. At times it appears more like a documentary, with cinematography that creates a 'fly on the wall' effect. Lots of close-up shots are used. These are effective, because they not only showcase Affleck's portrayal of Jack and his pain, they also clearly communicate other characters' frustrations with Jack for being so difficult to reach. Often in scenes where Jack is talking to other characters (like his almost ex-wife), the camera appears hand held. There is an almost unnoticeable shake, and zooms are also utilised. As I said earlier, this creates the impression of a documentary or a character study. Furthermore, slow motion is used to capture the highs and lows in Jack's life. It's true, that the basketball team does bring Jack some happiness, and so slow motion is used to capture these moments. There are also moments that are completely frozen, so that audience members can revel in the characters' joy for a moment longer. However, just as the happy moments appear to slow in Jack's mind, so too do the depressing ones.

The best parts of this film, are the way in which the script is written, and obviously the acting. Affleck's portrayal of Jack is commendable. It's easy to empathise with him, likewise, it's easy to feel frustrated with him and still in the same breath, know that he's doing the absolute best he can. Affleck walks a tightrope and nails it. I also like that this film doesn't start with thirty minutes of exposition about why Jack is sad #sadfleck. Elements of Jack's life are slowly revealed to audience members over time, in the same way that they might, over time in a series of counselling sessions. We don't get the whole backstory at once, and we certainly don't get Jack's backstory in chronological order. The audience is expected to put the pieces together, based on the conversations that they overhear and the events that they witness. An ability to make inferences is critical to an audience member watching this film, and that is refreshing.

Although I keep insisting that this isn't a basketball movie, if truth be told, the basketball does help Jack on his path to healing. Additionally, Jack does help a number of the students on the team (even if his methods aren't always in line with the school's code of conduct). One of my favourite moments, occurs when Jack tells his point guard, "don't just nod. I wanna hear your voice". This is an important message for every young person to hear, and spoiler alert, some kids who didn't necessarily speak up initially, end up making themselves heard - but if you thought this was a basketball movie, I'm sure you've guessed that this would happen at some point.

Finally, perhaps I'm slightly stupid. But, I'm genuinely unsure why this film is called The Way Back. At one point, someone says, "We can't change the past, Jack. What we can do is think of a way forward". Call me crazy, why isn't this thing called, The Way Forward? But then, I think to myself, I'm already fighting for a new blurb, I probably shouldn't fight for an amendment to the title as well.

This film seems to be having a limited release in the cinemas of Australia (or at least Brisbane). Although it only came out on Thursday, I could only catch it at two movie theatres, and I had to walk nigh on 10 kilometres, to the furthest cinema screen within the building, to view The Way Back. This is quite upsetting for me. This is a high-quality film; it should be seen. Furthermore, I wish the marketing strategy were different, because I think they'd be drawing bigger crowds if it were being advertised with greater precision. If you get the chance, check this one out on the big screen. It's an important look at mental health and grief, and a really nice reminder to help those that you're closest too, even when they try to push you away.

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