“Little things add up; let’s do all the little things right.” So advises Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball star who’s been tasked with coaching his alma mater’s failing basketball squad. It’s sound advice for a sports team and incidentally, valid advice for anyone battling through the depths of depression and grief. It just so happens that Jack, who is more deeply depressed than he even knows, isn’t doing either the little or big things right. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for a year, Jack has isolated almost everyone from his life and drowns his loneliness with a constant supply of alcohol. When the opportunity to lead the aforementioned team presents itself, he rehearses his rejection speech intended for the head of the school while downing a 12-pack of his go-to lager before ultimately accepting the job.
As a redemption drama that could ostensibly be described as a “sports movie”, The Way Back is uncommonly insightful when it comes not only to addiction but how much strength it takes to overcome it, even temporarily. Jack thinks he’s hiding his alcoholism better than he really is, though he doesn’t have many people in his life to hide it from anyway. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) chides him for being late for Thanksgiving dinner and even confronts him more directly later on, relaying gossip about him visiting the local watering hole Harold’s Place every night. “I’m fine. I appreciate it but it’s– I’m fine,” Jack grunts. As it’s said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one, even if Jack is still in denial when he accepts the coaching position that could set him on the right path.
I thought I knew what to expect going into The Way Back and you probably will too. As the director of other rousing sports films like Miracle and Warrior, Gavin O’Connor knows this and uses our knowledge of the genre to throw us off of the expected trajectory but not in a way that feels manipulative. Right up to the last frame, this film resonates with the stark authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience with the subject matter. Yes, there are training montages and yes, the team learns to overcome their interpersonal struggles in order to achieve success together as a team. The entire basketball angle, however, is always filtered through Jack’s perspective and O’Connor never loses sight of how much further he has to go to overcome his demons. Yes, coaching has given a reason for Jack to get out of bed in the morning but will that be enough for lasting change?
It feels strange to talk for this long about The Way Back and not discuss Affleck’s gut-wrenching and staggering lead performance, the finest of his 20+ year career. Rewatching 2000’s Boiler Room recently, I had in mind the cool and confident speeches he gave in that film and compared them to the impassioned words he shares with his team during timeouts here. This time, his voice cracks and he desperately shouts every word like it could be his last. Like his younger brother Casey’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s role is one marked by tremendous levels of personal pain which he both internalizes and externalizes brilliantly. It’s hard not to recall Nicolas Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, where his character is either inebriated or hung over in every single scene. Affleck is even more nuanced in his portrayal of an aimless man searching for a way forward, despite the film’s slightly contradictory title.
Even if one goes into The Way Back simply looking for an inspiring sports movie, O’Connor and crew swish on the fundamentals that make for exciting basketball footage. The clear and concise editing from David Rosenbloom paired with the grounded cinematography by Eduard Grau will even have sports novices on the edges of their seats. Rob Simonsen’s music score begins with doleful stabs from dampened piano strings, gradually crescendoing to rousing heights with exultant percussion. Steeped in the messy realities of hard living, The Way Back is the kind of intimate and personal filmmaking that is sorely lacking from the major studio system.
Score – 4/5