Having skidded far off the rails, a former star basketball player finds renewed purpose in life by coaching a team of bright-eyed young talents: some films start with a script, but Finding the Way Back practically starts with a template. That’s not a criticism of Gavin O’Connor’s satisfying meat-and-potatoes sports drama, which was supposed to come out in UK cinemas in late March, and instead was digitally released last Friday. Finding the Way Back uses the familiarity of its premise to highlight ways in which sporting triumph and personal pride don’t always line up.
As an alcoholic Los Angeles construction worker somehow tasked with coaching his former high school’s ailing basketball team, Ben Affleck introduces a note of wounded anxiety to proceedings that is never shed, even as the plot climbs its inevitable upward arc. Rescued from the purgatory of crummy Batman spinoffs, the embattled actor has clearly taken the film as his own metatextual comeback story, and sure enough, he’s the best he’s ever been in it. O’Connor knows his way around a worn, grainy study of everyday athletes – he previously made the excellent (and Netflixable) Warrior (2011) with Tom Hardy – and he brings similar integrity to this one.
The film fits into a rich American tradition of basketball drama: it’s perhaps the most propulsive of all sports on screen. The recent sensation of The Last Dance, Netflix’s 10-part documentary opus on the career of Michael Jordan, may have made many viewers in largely basketball-agnostic Britain more interested in the game than they ever knew they were.
One hopes that the first stop for most viewers enraptured by The Last Dance – at least, after a Netflix catch-up with Jordan’s cheesy cartoon romp Space Jam (1996) – would be Hoop Dreams (1994). Steve James’s seminal three-hour documentary following two black Chicago teenagers and their sporting ambitions isn’t just a nonfiction landmark: it may be the most poetic and piquant of all American sports films, with its complex sociopolitical detail folded into its soaring human study. Find it in Mubi’s recently launched Library – and if you’re hankering for more docs on the subject, make a beeline for ESPN Player’s dedicated basketball corner.
On the fictional side, spirit-lifting tales of underdog teams overcoming adversity to score on the court are a dime a dozen, though classics have emerged from the cliches. You’d need a harder heart than mine to resist Hoosiers (1986; on Amazon), in which Gene Hackman guides a ragged Indiana high school team to state championship glory in the 1950s. The small-town textures of David Anspaugh’s script feel honestly lived-in, making the obviously telegraphed triumph hard-won.
Coach Carter (on Netflix) updated the formula for the 00s: the anonymous film-making is elevated by Samuel L Jackson’s magnetism in the title role, bringing steely defiance to a subgenre all too often led by white-saviour figures. (See the earnestly sappy Glory Road on Disney+, or on Amazon, the ludicrous Sunset Park, in which a hard-up Brooklyn team is pulled into shape by… Rhea Perlman from Cheers.)
William Friedkin’s electric, underrated Blue Chips (1994; on Amazon) cut through genre expectations by mingling its story of college-level ambition with an exposé of systemic corruption in the game. (It would make a good double bill with Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix basketball-biz thriller High Flying Bird, which I celebrated in this column last year.) Blue Chips was written by Ron Shelton, the leading auteur of the Hollywood sports film, whose own basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump (1992; on Chili) retains its salty, street-smart verve nearly 30 years on.
Black film-makers, meanwhile, have given the genre two of its thorniest, most distinctive works. Spike Lee’s He Got Game (1998; on Amazon) sharply plays the mechanics of the basketball drama against a hot indictment of both the prison system and the college sport racket. It’s one of his best, most laser-focused films, boasting a furious, peak-form turn by Denzel Washington.
And in the week in which Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard hits Netflix, now is a perfect time to savour her superb 2000 debut, Love & Basketball (on Chili), which turns a rare spotlight on women in the sport. Its story of two young neighbours falling in love as they chase their respective hoop dreams could simply proceed along perky romcom lines, but Prince-Bythewood gives it flinty humanity and warm, sensual grace. It’s a million miles from the travails of Ben Affleck in Finding the Way Back: as genres go, the basketball film plays on a very large court.
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