The Way Back is a drama that tries to fit itself into two different formulas at the same time. It is the story of a former high school basketball star returning to his old school to take over as coach for the worst team in the league. It is also about a man driven to self-destruction and alcoholism after a personal tragedy. It follows both the sports and addiction formulas decently, if very predictably. Where it struggles is in combining them into a single story. It tends to pause one as the other takes center stage for a bit, then they switch. It makes for an awkward pairing. Regardless, the movie works well enough in individual moments, thanks to a strong lead performance from Ben Affleck.
Jack Cunningham is a subject of concern for everyone in his life, most notably the wife he is separated from. He spends his days doing construction and his nights drinking himself to incoherence. Then, he gets a call asking him to step in at midseason as head basketball coach at the high school he went to, for a team that has not been good in decades.
The Way Back (103 minutes without the end credits) is essentially a character study. Despite being unsure of what it wants to say about him, it is very much focused on Jack Cunningham. It is at its best in the quiet moments, when it just allows Affleck to be this man, flaws and all. The look on his face when he has his first sip of beer of the day, like he needed it to survive. Or his slight smile when his team executes a play exactly as he drew it up. I believed director Gavin O’Connor, his cowriter, Brad Ingelsby, and Affleck understood this man, who he is and what he is going through. I also felt that way during his conversations with his wife, played by Janina Gavankar as a complicated woman who still cares for this man even if she can no longer handle being with him.
The basketball scenes do not have the same impact. What keeps it interesting is that the games actually felt like basketball. The filmmakers captured it accurately enough that it seemed like the players were playing and Jack was coaching them. It was not just a bunch of stuff to build artificial on-court drama. The problem is none of the players are developed, so what happens to them is mostly inconsequential. Al Madrigal has the third biggest role as Jack’s assistant coach, but he is mainly there for reaction shots and exposition. If the basketball plot was given priority, perhaps that issue would have been solved. As it is, that material is more fun, while the addiction material has more power. They both come off as unfinished.
There were certainly times The Way Back felt honest, until it dove deeper into its formulas. Formulas exist because they generally work and they work individually here. The arc of the team’s season is exciting, albeit extremely familiar. Jack’s personal hardships contain the movie’s emotions, but then it is barely addressed for a long stretch, before it is needed again for the final act. The structure makes it a challenge for the disparate elements to connect with each other and they really do not. Though, mostly due to Affleck, its better qualities are good enough for a mild recommendation.
3 out of 5
Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham
Janina Gavankar as Angela
Al Madrigal as Dan
Brandon Wilson as Brandon
Michaela Watkins as Beth
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay by Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O’Connor