Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Todd Stashwick, Brandon Wilson, Melvin Gregg, Charles Lott Jr., John Aylward, Jeremy Radin
Running Time: 108 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If it's pretty much understood that any film centering around an alcoholic will feature a fair amount of on screen drinking, the first few minutes of Gavin O'Connor's sports drama The Way Back really leaves no doubt as to the pitiful, self destructive hole its protagonist's life has fallen into. It starts with some drinks at the bar, moving on to beers in the shower, and a trip to the liquor store before we actually view the full contents of his soon to be emptied fridge. Very early extinguishing any misconceptions this would be an inspirational basketball drama in the vain of Hoosiers, he consumes enough alcohol in just the first half hour alone to drink Leaving Las Vegas' Ben Sanderson under the table.
Of course, that the central character is played by Ben Affleck brings an obvious duality to the proceedings, opening the door for criticism that he's simply "playing himself" in a biographical account of the actor's well-documented addiction battle. That can't be easy no matter who you are, so if anything, he should probably be praised for taking a role that cuts so close to the bone rather than just taking the first paycheck that came along. And the film benefits from it, as he helps to paint this sad portrait of a man overcome by his own demons for much, if not all, of the running length. That its better, original title was The Has-Been should give you an idea just how uplifting it isn't.
There's never really a breakbrough, which is kind of the point. It's definitely a sports movie, but a melancholy one doubling as a character study where there's no buzzer beater finale or a coach hoisted upon team's shoulders in celebration of their national championship victory. For many who saw the commericals or trailer, this could actually be a dissapointment, especially when they discover how depressingly realistic the story is. But that's what sets this apart, seeming far more interested in intelligently exploring addiction than sending audiences home with smiles on their faces.
Former star high school basketball player and construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) spends his days and nights drowning his despair in the bottle, as sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and separated wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) grow increasingly concerned about his isolation from the family. But when Jack receives an offer from Father Devine (John Aylward) to step in and coach basketball at his high school alma mater, Bishop Hayes, after the current coach suffers a heart attack, he's given something to think about. Or rather in this case, drink about. After initially rejecting the idea, Jack reluctantly accepts, even as his life's in shambles, perpetually in need of a lift home from the bar every night. With this job maybe being his last shot at redemption and respectability, he's shown the ropes by assisstant coach and alegebra teacher, Dan (Al Madrigal) and kept in check by team chaplain Father Mark (Jeremy Radin).
Inheriting a Bad News Bears-level team that hasn't been to the playoffs since he was a student, the quick-tempered, profanity-prone Jack drops a lot of knowledge about the game while giving these kids some much neeeded structure. He bonds with shy, introverted point guard Brandon (Brandon Wilson), the team's best player dealing with issues at home, and attempts to get through to showboating center, Marcus (Melvin Gregg). But while the team does Jack a lot of good, it can't fix his addiction, and until he faces a past trauma head-on, he'll be a ticking time bomb set to detonate, destroying himself and everyone in his path.
The vivid depiction of Jack's addiction is so raw and depressing it's easy to overlook just how many of the sports elements of the story work far better than they should. A troubled coach guiding a ragtag team isn't exactly fertile creative territory, so O' Connor (adapting Brad Ingelsby's script) doesn't overstay his welcome in any of the well-shot court sequences while giving us just enough of the players' personalities and problems to be invested. There's a certain lived-in quality to the setting and events that if a pre-credit disclaimer appeared informing us this were a true story we wouldn't be at all suprised. Chances are that similar stories unfold at various schools on courts and fields every day and this does about as good a job as any recent sports drama capturing that, uniquely dialed in to the rhythms of life during and after practice.
While the darker moments of Affleck's performance will justifiably grab the most attention, his portrayal of an exasperated high school coach may be more impressive. We've all known a guy like this, cutting his players no slack, cursing at the ref and rolling his eyes back into his head at as the team continuously makes boneheaded plays. He also looks and acts like a man attempting to cover up his drinking while not quite succceeding, his eyes glazed over and attention diverted. We anxiously await when he'll be ejected from a game and/or show up drunk to practice, and when both do occur, that inevitability does nothing to dilute its impact since Affleck is so adept at playing this volcanic personality on the verge of going off the deep end.
Jack has a number of little slip-ups that we know will eventually lead to far bigger ones. As for his personal life, we wonder just how long he can continue drowning himself in liquor before he finally hits rock bottom, fearing what that could look like if this was just the warm-up. When the inciting event from his past is revealed, it doesn't feel like the manipulative machination it could in a lesser picture, but an underlying tragedy that was already present within Affleck's performance. Hearing it spoken out loud serves only as further confirmation of what we already knew. Given the circumstances it's then even more clear how his sister and most especially his estranged wife haven't lost their patience or given up on him yet, try as he might to throw in the towel for them anyway.
The Way Back earns most of its points for restraint, not to mention Rob Simonsen's elgiac score, which ideally fits such a mood. What victories there are for Jack are tiny ones marked with a lot of pain a long the way. He's a work in progress, and while that may not make for the most exciting of sports dramas, it makes for a more introspective journey that mixes surprisingly well with some more familar sports movie tropes, all of which are well executed. O'Connor finds just the right tone, with Affleck continuing to prove he's an underrated actor whose career choices have too frequently detracted from that. Here, tasked with developing a deeper, more complex character whose struggles had to strike a personal chord, he's back at his best.