The “Hoosiers”-esque story arc of director Gavin O’Connor’s “The Way Back” feels instantly familiar. The tropes are recognizable and not especially compelling. But “The Way Back” isn’t a basketball movie serviced by colorful characters. It’s a character portrait in which basketball is the plaintive backdrop.
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The Way Back
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar and Michaela Watkins
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr., 55 min.
The “Hoosiers”-esque story arc of director Gavin O’Connor’s “The Way Back” feels instantly familiar.
There’s the basketball coach looking to lead a ragtag high school team to unexpected glory. There’s the undisciplined player who needs tough love, and the quiet player who needs to be coaxed into becoming a leader. There’s the Big Game.
Those tropes are recognizable and not especially compelling. But “The Way Back” isn’t a basketball movie serviced by colorful characters. It’s a character portrait in which basketball is the plaintive backdrop.
O’Connor and star Ben Affleck train the film’s focus on the travails of a broken man battling unspeakable tragedy and self-inflicted demons. Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is a former high school basketball star who eschewed a full-ride to play college hoops just to spite his abusive father, then turned to the bottle after his young son died of cancer and his marriage disintegrated. He’s now a construction worker who fills his thermos full of vodka and keeps a beer in his shower. He spends his nights laughing and overindulging at a back alley dive, where there’s an older patron willing to drag a drunken Jack to bed, just like he used to do with Jack’s father.
Out of the blue, Jack gets a call from the headmaster at Bishop Hayes, the old Catholic parochial school where Jack enjoyed hard court glory — his name still hangs from the gym’s rafters. The school wants Jack to step in and coach their woeful basketball team, a collective of urban stereotypes that includes the chubby kid (nicknamed Chubbs, natch), the bandana-wearing white kid, the ill-tempered black kid, and — you guessed it — the quiet player who needs to be coaxed into becoming a leader.
For Jack, alcohol is a distraction from life’s pains, and after some reluctance, coaching becomes a suitable substitute. The crude, colorful language Jack uses becomes a running gag, particularly how it chafes the team’s chaplain (Jeremy Radin). But his rage flows from the same well, whether it’s anger at his sister (Michaela Watkins) for confronting his drinking, at his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar) when she tells him she’s dating someone else, or at a referee for making a questionable call.
Affleck is pitch perfect, effectively portraying an alcoholic who is simultaneously energized and repulsed by his addiction. He leans into the grimy, ragged side of alcoholism. Much has been made — including by Affleck himself — about the parallels between Jack and his own personal struggles with alcoholism, how they both represent failed husbands/fathers with up-and-down relationships with being a celebrity. Indeed, when Jack’s ex-wife first appears onscreen, I was half-expecting to see Jennifer Garner.
Still, this well-made redemption tale appeared heading for a tidy, familiar finale until O’Connor inverts that trope, reminding us that winning the big game isn’t a cure-all. Victory isn’t final, failure is ever-present, and the game of life goes on.