On Friday night I went to see the latest Gavin O’Connor movie The Way Back with my boys Brett and Brolin. Who is Gavin O’Connor? Good question! He is the director of Miracle (2004), the inspiring true story of the USA men’s hockey team winning the 1980 Olympic gold medal. He also directed Warrior (2011), one of my five favorite movies of all time. Warrior follows the journey of two estranged brothers, both UFC fighters, struggling with their relationship and their alcoholic father. He also directed Ben Affleck in arguably his best role, The Accountant (2016).
I was doubly excited to see The Way Back because it reunites O’Connor with Affleck (Jack Cunningham) in a role tailor made for him: a struggling alcoholic hired to coach his old high school basketball team. Over the past year, Ben Affleck has been vocal about his personal struggles with alcoholism. The movie trailer looked awesome --lots of basketball, pain and triumph.
The movie began in a very O’Connor-like fashion: terrific establishing shots of the landscape, personal shots of the protagonist’s day-to-day routine, and a simple musical score to magnify the loneliness and desperation of the main character. The first third of the movie felt a little like Groundhog Day as Jack Cunningham drowns his sorrows in lots and lots of beer. I was a little surprised at the early monotony of the film, as most O’Connor films have a dramatic inciting incident early on that gives direction to the developing storyline.
Once Cunningham is hired to coach the dreadful Bishop Hayes Catholic high school basketball team, the energy of the film picks up. I anticipated a strong secondary storyline to emerge with their point guard Brandon. But it never materialized. Instead a montage of quick images shows the team on a winning streak. Later in the film, another secondary narrative emerges as Cunningham meets up with his ex-wife.
Spoiler alert. The team miraculously makes the playoffs but Cunningham is mercilessly fired before they begin because of his drinking problem. The movie ends with the team in their first playoff game, while Cunningham is far way, playing pickup basketball. I walked out of the theater disappointed. Why? The movie trailer was more uplifting than the movie (not a good sign), and the secondary storylines didn’t capture my imagination. All in all, I’d give the movie a 6.5/10. Ouch! Sorry Gavin.
Great films have this in common: strong stories with secondary storylines that engage us emotionally and help us buy into the overall narrative. Think of Forest Gump, with Jenny’s reckless, drug-filled journey, or Lord of the Rings, with its many rich secondary stories supporting Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. As I watched The Way Back with disappointment, I was reminded that people want to become emotionally invested in the characters’ journeys, and that this investment only happens when strong secondary stories bring them deeper into the primary story.
The Way Back prompted me to reflect on my most recent film, Because of Grácia, and as I looked back, I was encouraged by the ways that audiences had connected with its multiple storylines: the growing friendship of Grácia and Chase; the complicated relationships between Bobbi, her boyfriend Jesse and her father; the other rich friendships including Grácia’s growing connection with Bobbi; and Chase’s personal journey as he struggles with being a closet Christian. Films, like life, need to be multidimensional. I invite you to check out Because of Grácia and let me know if you agree.