Finding the Way Back (4 stars)

Finding the Way Back

Gavin O'Connor directs a rarely better Ben Affleck in a drama that pairs sporting highs with addiction lows

American director Gavin O'Connor has tackled sports before – be it ice hockey in Miracle, or MMA in Warrior. This time it's basketball, but Finding the Way Back is less about hoop dreams than the battle for sobriety. Ben Affleck, an actor who has endured his own very public struggle with alcoholism, plays protagonist Jack Cunningham. A promising basketball player in his youth, Jack quit the sport and turned down a university scholarship.

Years later, when the film begins, Jack is a construction worker in Long Beach who is separated from his wife and lives alone. Evidently, he has a problem with booze – from hiding a beer inside a plastic cup when he's driving, to keeping a can close by when he's in the shower. Then he gets an offer to coach his old high school basketball team, alongside the avuncular Dan (Al Madrigal), a teacher who works as the assistant coach.

Scripted by Brad Ingelsby (American Woman, Out of the Furnace), O'Connor's film intriguingly combines rousing sports movie moments with sobering addiction drama. Affleck's bearded Cunningham finds catharsis in teaching ill-disciplined kids to overcome their flaws, all the while grappling with his own issues. An early montage, as Jack works his way through the case of beer in his fridge, is particularly effective in communicating his plight.

Something of a character study, like Barfly or The Lost Weekend, the script does gradually reveal the source of Jack's anguish, with tragedy inevitably lurking in his backstory. Perhaps Finding the Way Back leans too heavily on sporting triumphalism to get you rooting for Jack. But it's hard not to get swept up. O'Connor directs the basketball scenes with real verve, while Affleck hasn't been this raw in years, taking us back to the days of Boiler Room and Changing Lanes, and inevitably drawing on painful personal experience to bravely bare his soul.

Available to watch on demand from Fri 10 Jul.