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Ben Affleck’s powerful performance elevates familiar sports redemption in The Way Back

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Ben Affleck’s turn in The Way Back feels like one of his best performances to date.

In The Way Back, Ben Affleck plays a former high school basketball phenom turned alcoholic coach for that same high school, leading the way through a predictable redemption story.This isn’t a slight. As far as movies where the trailer shows you pretty much everything before you enter the theater, I enjoyed the hell out of the experience.

Maybe it’s the art-imitating-life aspect, as the film recalls Affleck’s own public struggle with alcoholism and the personal woes stemming from his former marriage to Jennifer Garner.

The movie opens by heavy-handedly showing the audience that Affleck’s Jack Cunningham drinks a lot. Not just on his construction job (which is pretty frickin’ dangerous), but on the way home and even in the shower. The worst part wasn’t the beer on the edge of the shower, but the fact that he used soap the size of a Tic Tac to clean his body. Alcoholism is one thing, but you don’t have to be a savage.

Cunningham’s character goes through life hoping nobody notices that he’s having a hard time and drinking too hard, but during Thanksgiving, his caring sister tells him that his wife called. Their marriage on the rocks, he gets angry when he finds out his sister is getting calls a year into their separation.

His life is mostly spent on booze, often at a local bar in his Anywhere USA town. But he gets a call from the priest at his old high school who tells him the squad needs a coach with the previous one sidelined by a heart attack.

The priest tells Cunningham to sit on it overnight. He’s reluctant at first, but in the end, he is, like the Wu-Tang Clan, for the kids.

He goes to his first practice with assistant coach Dan (The Daily Show‘s Al Madrigal) and realizes his team has more heart than talent. You know the gist of the rest of the squad’s story already: They stink at first, but they learn to do great things in the end. Again, the trailers pretty much tell you all this already, and the movie obliges in fairly paint-by-numbers fashion.

The joy of the film is the convincing pain that Affleck brings to his role. Not to be a prisoner of the moment, but this feels like one of his best performances to date.

Indeed, if Affleck’s own experiences fuel him here, they fuel him well. In one teary moment after hitting rock bottom — literally; he falls down the stairs and into the street — he tells his wife that he understands he failed his marriage, and the feeling he brings to the scene had me suddenly feeling as if onions were being cut in front of me. You realize that Affleck is much more cut out for a role like this than one like Batman.

The film isn’t without its stale moments. When the team’s star player attracts colleges talking about full scholarships, his father pulls out the “books ain’t gonna put food on the table” argument seen on screen so many times before. I gave it more of a chuckle than an eye roll.

Ultimately, The Way Back offers a great lead performance in a solid sports movie. It’s not a run-of-the-mill teacher-character-and-young-player-both-make-a-comeback story, and the R rating and the F-bombs it allows make the experience feel a lot more real. Take it as a reminder that even when you know the outcome, sometimes a redemption story just feels good.

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