If you’ve seen a sports drama, you probably know how Gavin O’Connor‘s The Way Back will play out. If you’ve seen an addiction drama, you probably know how the movie is going to play out. The Way Back isn’t trying to surprise its audience. Instead, it’s offers to go through those beats as perfectly as possible for maximum effect, and it makes the film work wonderfully. Let’s be blunt: we’re not inundated with movies like The Way Back. No one is out here making a franchise about an alcoholic helping various sports teams. If anything, it’s been a minute since we got a wide release feature that’s just a simple drama about a guy struggling with his personal demons and using sports as a vehicle to pull him out of his spiral. Is it kind of like Hoosiers? Sure! But at no point in the last thirty years has anyone said, “They make too many movies like Hoosiers.” O’Connor, who previously helmed Miracle and Warrior, crafts his best sports drama yet thanks to Brad Ingelsby‘s thoughtful script and Ben Affleck‘s terrific lead performance.
Jack Cunningham’s (Affleck) life has devolved into one long bender. He goes to work at his construction job and then spends all of his free time drinking. His marriage to Angela (Janina Gavankar) has fallen apart and he relies on the good graces of his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins). One day, the priest from Jack’s old Catholic high school, where he was a basketball star, calls him up and asks him to coach the team. Jack is reluctant at first but decides to give it a shot even though the team is quite poor despite having some talented players. Jack then finds a positive outlet for his anger and aggression, not by directing it at the players, but by giving it an avenue on how they play: “with a chip on our shoulder.” As the team’s fortunes begin to improve, Jack starts confronting the demons that drove him to drink in the first place.
What’s kind of fascinating about The Way Back is that the basketball story and the alcoholism story don’t really have much to do with each other by the end of the picture. Basketball doesn’t “solve” Jack’s alcoholism; there’s no scene where all the players come to his house, tell him how much he means to them, and then he never drinks again, which I appreciate. Ingelsby’s script shows that basing Jack’s recovery on how the team performs is a fragile road, and really unrelated to why he’s drinking. He didn’t start drinking 24 beers a night because his old high school basketball team was losing, and as we uncover the real reason behind Jack’s alcoholism, the film becomes stronger for how it plays with our expectations on recovery even if the plot beats are pretty standard for the genre.
Rather than the coach who gets involved with the lives of each of the main players and offers them wisdom, Jack is just a good coach who understands his team’s strengths and weaknesses. He dose take a shine to one player, Brandon (Brandon Wilson), and it shows that Jack sees his players as people, but the story doesn’t really involve these kids. This is not an after-school special cautionary tale where the alcoholic learns he can stop being alcoholic if he’s just a better mentor. The Way Back doesn’t take those easy off-ramps, and the way it intertwines and separates Jack’s coaching and his alcoholism makes the picture stronger and more believable.
But it all comes together because of Affleck. I’m one of those folks that’s been an Affleck fan since the 90s when I was riveted by his Chasing Amy performance and amused by his strong supporting role in Shakespeare in Love. Affleck has always had the chops, and you can see a series of great performances from him in Boiler Room, Changing Lanes, The Town, Gone Girl, and more. He’s at his best in The Way Back, and while some may want to draw on the autobiographical aspects of the role, at the end of the day this is still a performance and one that makes us fully invested in Jack’s story. Affleck is able to tap into what makes the character captivating even when he behaves poorly. Yes, Ben Affleck is a movie star, but he’s been a movie star for over 20 years, and that’s hard to do. The Way Back knows how to combine Affleck’s charisma with his underrated skills as an actor.
Gavin O’Connor isn’t trying to change the recovery drama or the sports drama or make some daring new mash-up of the two. Instead, he just tells a very human story about personal demons and the difficult road away from constant pain and anger. The Way Back achieves what it sets out to do by being both inspiring and emotional, and while you may have seen this picture done before, there’s something to be said for when it’s done this well.