“The Way Back” is a surprisingly low-key mix of two different genres. As a story about one former basketball athlete’s struggle for a new start in his messy life, it surely has a number of basketball game scenes as required, but it stoically stays focused on the ups and downs in its flawed hero’s personal journey instead of relying on expected genre conventions, and it ultimately works as an earnest character study to be appreciated for several good reasons including the strong lead performance at its center.
When we are introduced to Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) at the beginning, he has been slowly going down toward the bottom of his alcoholism. While he looks mostly fine on the surface when he works at a construction site or when he attends a Thanksgiving family meeting at his sister’s affluent suburban house, he frequently drinks, and he has usually spent night along with several other barflies in a local bar.
And then there comes an unexpected change via the principle of his old high school where he was once quite promising as a talented basketball player. The principle wants Cunningham to work as the new basketball team coach to replace the former one who had to retire due to a sudden health problem, and Cunningham cannot possibly say no – even while trying to figure out how to reject the request with lots of cold beer during the following night.
His first day of coaching is rather uneventful, but it does not take much time for him to discern each own team player’s strong and weak points, and he soon finds himself doing a lot more than expected for these players. In case of one particular player, Cunningham sees a lot of himself from him, and he naturally comes to give this player more encouragement and guidance.
Above all, it looks like Cunningham finally reaches to a certain point where many other alcoholics come to hit before taking on the road to recovery. At first, he sometimes drinks whenever no one is watching, but he cannot fool his assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), and he comes to realize that he must get things in his personal life under control for helping and improving his players. Although this turning point of his may feel a bit too easy and convenient on the surface, Ben Affleck, who has also struggled with alcoholism in real life, brings unadorned gravitas to this moment, and that is why this seemingly modest moment works with considerable dramatic effect.
Once he embarks on the road to sobriety, Cunningham becomes more concentrated on improving his team than before, and his team gradually rises above its rather miserable status thanks to Cunningham’s good coaching skills. While the basketball game scenes in the movie are mostly perfunctory to say the least, the score by Rob Simonsen tentatively suggests the growing hope and optimism as Cunningham and his team advance further and further, and we cannot help but feel anxious around the time when they face a very important game, where, as many of you have already expected, Cunningham delivers a terse but effective speech in front of his players.
In the meantime, we get to know more about Cunningham’s person demons. As he confides to his favourite player at one point later in the story, he made several bad decisions in the past including quitting basketball just because of his spite toward his unloving father, and then he was fortunately helped by his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), but, alas, the stability and happiness of their domestic life did not last long due to a sad tragedy, which still hurt them a lot as shown from a few key scenes involved with the son of their two close acquaintances.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our problematic hero subsequently finds himself tumbling down from his seemingly stable status, but the movie takes a couple of unexpected steps during that part. After letting down not only himself and others around him as driven by his personal demons again, he surely regrets a lot, but there is an irreversible consequence from his wrongful action, and he has to accept that along with his growing problem with alcohol.
The screenplay by Brad Ingelsby is often a little too predictable, but it is smoothly handled under the competent direction of director Gavin O’Connor, and Affleck, who previously collaborated with O’Connor in “The Accountant” (2016), carries the film well in addition to reminding us that he is still a good actor despite being criticized for his rather pedestrian acting in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017). As shown from his acclaimed performance in “Hollywood” (2006), he is capable of embodying desperation and frustration without showing them off, and he is also supported well by several solid supporting performers including Janina Gavanka and Al Madrigal, who holds his own small place well besides Affleck.
In conclusion, “The Way Back” will not probably surprise you much if you are a seasoned audience like me, but it succeeds as much as intended even while mostly staying in its genre territory, and it is certainly worthwhile to watch for Affleck’s admirable effort. To be frank with you, I really have no idea on his current health status, but I sincerely hope that the movie may help him bounce further from the latest bottom of his life and career.