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FILM REVIEW: Ben Affleck brilliant as a coach finding The Way Back

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I hate sports. I don’t care about ANY of them. I can summon some enthusiasm for the Olympics but that’s about it.

Which is why this next confession is going to be surprising – I love sports MOVIES.

It’s an important distinction because while sports is about talent and the ability to get different ball-shaped things into nets of varying sizes, sports movies are all about underdogs.

There’s never been a successful sports movie that tells the story of the best team in the league with the most money and the best players, and the incredible true story of how that set them up to be winners. That’s not a story anyone is interested in.

What I and so many others come for is the vulnerability of the underdog, getting up off the ground (where they lay because they’re too old, underfunded, differently abled or without natural talent) and trying again.

Maybe they win (OK they almost always win against all odds), maybe they lose. It doesn’t really matter because we’re not watching sports; we’re watching a piece of ourselves trying for that impossible dream or secret wish we all have inside of us.

Even if our odds are the same as, say, a ragtag group of underfunded basketball players at a Catholic high school that hasn’t won a game in 25 years. Which is where we find ourselves in The Way Back.

Sent in as the savior is Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), once the best player the school had ever seen and now a separated construction worker with a serious drinking problem in need of saving himself.

That he turns the team into at least passably good and finds himself drinking a little less and connecting a little more is not a spoiler alert. In fact, in terms of the sports movie angle, you’ve seen it all before.

What we haven’t seen before, however, is the completely raw and exposed performance from Ben Affleck – without question his best in years.

For a man whose name has appeared in tabloid headlines more often than marquee signs recently, it can be a bit of a shock to recall he’s a fantastic actor.

Affleck has an everyman quality that makes him instantly believable in the role. The fact he began shooting the movie one day after being released from rehab for his own drinking problem probably didn’t hurt either.

The incredible vulnerability he shows on screen is moving and powerful, and knowing about his personal struggle with sobriety makes some scenes so intimate and personal to watch it can be uncomfortable.

In the end The Way Back is a beautiful (albeit predictable) ode to underdogs and the power of a second, third or thirtieth chance. It’s virtually impossible not to root for both Jack Cunningham and Ben Affleck as they open a vein and lay bare their every flaw for our judgment, while asking us to believe in them one more time. Hopefully, movie audiences will do just that.

Vicky Sparks is a Bright’s Grove native and movie critic for Global TV’s The Morning Show, which airs nationally on Fridays. Journal Reviews cover movies playing at Galaxy Cinemas Sarnia

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