It doesn’t take an extensive google search to find out about Ben Affleck’s issues with substance abuse. Titled Finding The Way Back in the UK (just The Way Back elsewhere), Gavin O’Connor’s film is apt not only for a plot about knowing the right way out of a black pit but also for Affleck’s own return to the screen following his public downfall. The results are certainly mixed but there is no denying that this is a shining performance and return for the actor but it is one of the few noteworthy elements of a film that stumbles over every kind of addiction cliché it can find.
Affleck here plays Jack, a prior star basketball player whose star has diminished amongst a trail of bad decisions. When we are introduced to him he is working on a construction site, drinking his nights away and repeating the same empty existance over again. However he is asked to come back and coach at the catholic school were he once was a big deal, forcing him to face his existence, his past, a failed marriage and the loses along the way.
O’Connor clearly has the best intentions here and more than that he has the bones of a story worth telling but instead of being upfront with his audience, Finding The Way Back is structured in a way that the whole opening hour feels like mindless padding, a painful public service announcement about the dangers of drinking through repetitive montage. Filling his story with half truths ensures that any good faith or empathy that seeps out of Affleck’s splendid performance is gone by the midway point when the story shifts towards justifying Jack’s collapse, instead of letting Affleck and Jack own it. In the blink of an eye, everything special and unique about Jack vanishes. He’s just another tragic drunk painted as the victim.
The alcoholism that cripples Jack is handled with the finesse of a bulldozer, with extended sequences of mindless drinking masking noticable gaps in storytelling as the real tale, although admittedly darker, overwhelms what screenwriter Brad Ingelsby wants to say. While the film doesn’t want to villify or justify anything, its story structure, the dour but excellent soundtrack and minimlaist dialogue ensures that any discussion feels muted, a flat depiction of a man who is thinking about more than what he is going to drink next. The one thing it manages to say here is that alcohol isn’t an addiction for Jack, its a temporary cure and for a film about the ravages of addiction, it might just be the most harmful trope in the entire film.
Sold as a story about someone finding themselves again through their interaction with this fresh faced but troubled group of kids, Finding The Way Back doesn’t ever feel the need to add voices to the young men that Jack is guiding. It barely gives voice to Jack, anyone else would perhaps be too much to hope for. For a film about re-entering the world, embracing a new beginning through a second chance and interacting with others once again, O’Connor’s film isn’t really interested in that world. While it turns the film into a character study, a one man play translated onto the screen, a tale of isolation and lonliness and grief and the only reason it limps on to its inevitable conclusion is that Affleck is just compelling enough to pull you through some glaring writing and manipulative direction.
The feeling that there is always a story behind every addict, a fork in the road that changed everything simplifies the issues that O’Connor wants to discuss and effectively strips Jack of his individuality. Despite its drawbacks, Affleck and the previously mentioned, score, one that seems to comprehend Jack more than Ingelsby’s script does, lifts up a film that should have fallen long ago. Both make something sombre out of the slim pickings provided but never really making the experience worth it by the end.
Although this is the quintessential redemption story, the kind of tale people are looking for to raise their spirits, Finding The Way Back drags you into the cold, icy waters of Jack’s depression and leaves you there, never bringing you up for air or even alluding to the kind of hope this story teases but never shows. O’Connor’s film is drunk on its own misery and by the end thats all you feel, miserable.