From its opening moments, The Way Back wants you to know this is a movie about an alcoholic. Actually, the entire first act of the movie goes out of its way to make that clear.
We get lingering shots of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) drinking beer in the shower. We see him pouring his alcohol into a thermos to hide it at work. We get an extended montage of him polishing off a few dozen beers in a single night. And just when you’re ready to write off the film for being a little too one-note, it starts to actually tell a story.
Jack was a high school basketball star who is now separated from his wife and working a job in construction. When his old high school comes calling with a job as the head basketball coach, it’s the last thing he wants. After the aforementioned night of a few dozen beers, however, he ends up taking the job. Now Jack has to work on bringing together the struggling team who doesn’t know what it’s like to win.
The shift to a sports movie, although one steeped in a setting of addiction and heartache, is where The Way Back really starts to shine. We don’t get too deep into the lives of any of the players. Brandon (Brandon Wilson), the team’s shy point guard and best player, gets the biggest storyline, but only as the vehicle to allow Jack to talk about his own father.
As the story progresses, more and more details are shared about Jack’s past and what led to his alcoholism. This is all done with a backdrop of the basketball team’s progress towards the playoffs. Of course there also has to a dramatic moment that upsets the progress that both Jack and the team have made so far. Every addiction story has to have a rock bottom.
Ben Affleck is uncomfortably good in the role of Jack, in a movie that couldn’t help but blur the lines with his own addiction issues. Any awareness of Ben Affleck as a person made it a little disconcerting to watch Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham.
The movie dances dangerously close to the line of being overly melodramatic. The basketball scenes manage to pull things back from that edge, giving moments of joy in a fairly bleak movie. The team chaplain’s struggle to get everyone to use a little less profanity gives some unexpected laughs throughout the film.
Part redemption story, part underdog sports story, The Way Back doesn’t give us anything new, but Ben Affleck and his team give us performances that make it worth watching.
You can catch The Way Back in theaters on March 6, 2020.
About The Way Back
Back in high school, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had everything going for him. A basketball phenom, he could have punched his ticket to college or even the pros, but, instead, he chose to walk away from the game, forfeiting his future.
Jack’s glory days are long gone…but, as it turns out, not forgotten. Years later, he gets the chance to take back his life when he is asked to coach the struggling basketball team at his alma mater. Jack reluctantly accepts, surprising no one more than himself, and as the boys start to come together as a team and win, Jack may get his last shot at redemption.