There’s an interesting extra layer to “The Way Back” that almost eclipses this stripped-down sports drama. The scrappy high school underdog basketball tale in the style of “Hoosiers,” or “The Mighty Ducks,” directed by “Warrior” helmer Gavin O’Connor bears the weight of our parasocial relationship with star Ben Affleck. We know him for his film career, but also for his highly publicized tabloid-fodder personal troubles, including drinking, divorces and trips to rehab. His own battle with the bottle informs our understanding of, and adds an extra element to, the brutal, self-destructive alcoholism with which his character, Jack Cunningham, struggles.
“The Way Back” opens on Jack’s addiction, the kind of sad, secretive drinking that makes a functional alcoholic, well, functional, to the outside world. Beer secreted away in metal coffee cups on the construction site, fifths of vodka guzzled in the car before family Thanksgiving dinner: Jack’s drinking isn’t fun, it’s just about getting through the day. He’s a tortured man, that’s for sure, as he’s called back to his alma mater, Bishop Hayes, where he was once the basketball star.
The varsity team needs a new head coach, and despite his booze-soaked reservations and standing appointment at the local bar each night, Jack shows up to practice to evaluate this promising but disorganized team. Slowly but surely, the basketball bug seeps back into his blood as he gets to know these boys, and their strengths and weaknesses on and off the court. Winning also is addictive, and Jack starts chasing that high again.
Bishop Hayes starts to creep up in the rankings, offering something for Jack to live for, not drink through, but basketball practice isn’t rehab, and the film keeps the viewer in a constant state of unease as we wait for the other shoe to drop, for the dark night of Jack’s soul to descend. We know it’s coming, just not what form it will take.
Brad Ingelsby’s script follows the structure of the rousing sports drama, a genre so familiar that he can afford to strip it down to bare bones, skipping certain expected scenes and focusing on Jack’s emotional journey through Affleck’s performance. The film distills the sports genre down to its purest essence. But when the script finally reveals the source of Jack’s demons, some of the contrived story beats are too tortured to be believed.
Though the focus is on Jack’s journey back to himself through the device of basketball, the best moments in “The Way Back” are the basketball itself. Affleck takes to the role of a hot-tempered coach like a duck to water, and the character, as written, plays on his innate qualities: a dry and snarky wit that makes him a lovable jerk, but a jerk nonetheless.
The game is what makes “The Way Back” hum, not Jack’s tragic backstory. The most compelling relationship onscreen is between Jack and his star player Brandon (Brandon Wilson), a diamond in the rough, the quietest kid on the team who doesn’t even know the gift he has. The reserved respect the two have for each other and the shorthand they develop through basketball leads to a winning relationship. We root for them because they root for each other and discover that what Jack was missing all along was his team.
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