The Way Back (2020)

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Food: I made a Penne alla Vodka recipe that was sent to me through a friend and I am happy to say it turned out exceptionally well. The main bulk of the recipe was, of course, making the sauce. The ingredients include olive oil (1cup), finely chopped shallot (½), a finely grated garlic clove, tomato paste (½ cup), vodka (2 tablespoons), heavy cream (1cup), crushed red pepper flakes (1teaspoon), salt & pepper and salted butter (2tablespoons). You add the oil, then heat the garlic & shallot first. Next, you add the tomato paste until it turns the color of a red brick. Add the vodka and let the liquid evaporate. Add heavy cream, red pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in water with salt until el dente. Then, drain the water (mostly) and add the butter. Finally, add the sauce to the pasta and pour into a bowl to serve. Top with basil and parmesan! Voila!!! It is delicious. Enjoy.

Film: “The Way Back” (2020) is a sports drama directed by Gavin O’Connor (who previously did 2004’s “Miracle” and 2011’s “Warrior” so one could say he has a proclivity for the heartwarming underdog tale). This one stars Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star in a small town, who now spends the majority of his time drinking until he can’t walk and working at a meaningless job.

We learn pretty quickly, as he visits his sisters house for dinner, played by Michaela Watkins, he has a tendency for ignoring phone calls from his relatives, spends a lot of time moping, and is drowning himself in alcohol. From start to finish, Ben Affleck just gives an unrelenting performance.

He reluctantly takes up the offer to coach the forlorn basketball team at his alma mater and it seems, at least for those around him, that this might be a shot at redemption. It is a Catholic school, and without trying to tackle any heavy existential themes, the religious aspect of the story plays a small and gentle role. “We are not trying to win basketball games. We are trying to raise honorable young men.”

This is the kind of film we’ve all seen before. It is a touching story showing gritty characters work through their pain through sports. It is also the kind of film that, when done well, can still feel new. “The Way Back” is done well. It just works. While Jack struggles to mend the side of himself that is not only addicted to booze, but addicted to numbing the pain he feels over what he has lost in his past, he also struggles to continue to want to change. He teeters between the challenge of growth, of progress, of recovery and the comfortable warmth of oblivion, even if it might be killing him slowly.

It’s dark without romanticizing the melodrama. The story feels grounded. What makes films like this work are the characters, and, smartly, O’Connor keeps a close eye on Jack. With a superb performance from Affleck, and filmmaking techniques (especially by cinematographer Eduard Grau), there is a visceral feeling of alcoholism that serves as a lens through which the story is told. You can almost feel the bloated migrane, the blurred vision, each drop of liquor making a reappearance in the sweat blotting on Jack’s cheeks as he screams plays at his team. With tender moments between his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and a talented, but apprehensive student (Brandon Wilson), we begin to understand what has led Jack to this rock bottom and why he resists crawling out of it.

Most of all though, Affleck just rips your heart out because you feel how disassociated this man has gotten from his world. He’s so heavily sedated any human part of himself, he might as well be a ghost.  He deflects accountability, foams with an excitable temper and his behavior is often reckless. There was a part of this film where I felt like I could smell the alcohol wreaking from his skin, peering from behind his pupils, even though he was seemingly sober. This was achieved through sincere understanding of the material and the subtlety that exists within the process of a person trying to get clean.

Overall, “The Way Back” captures one mans fight for sobriety, the dazzling excitement and energy of high school basketball during a winning streak, and the way microscopic moments can lead to sizable change in time. Perhaps a little forgettable in the bigger scheme of sports films, or dramas on addiction, but it is a well-done portrayal and a worthwhile watch.

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