By Nick Boyd.
“The Way Back,” as much a relationship drama as it is a sports drama, stars Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, a down-on-his luck construction worker who is recently separated from his wife, drinks continually, and mopes about. His drinking is so bad that he has to be helped home on a regular basis by someone at the local bar.
One day he gets a call asking him to coach basketball at the Catholic high school where he was once a star. He refuses at first, but eventually agrees to take the job. As in many sports movies, the team has been on a long losing streak so he knows it won’t be easy. But it’s a challenge he needs at this point in his life.
When Cunningham is introduced to the team by the assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), they are lacking in any discipline or unity. While Cunningham tries to energize and motivate them, we still see them losing game-after-game by huge margins. Eventually, we do see them start winning, as they seem to be genuinely enjoying and believing in themselves.
Despite the success of the team, Cunningham still struggles with his drinking and has to find ways to conceal that aspect of his life from the team. A scene where he meets with his ex-wife for lunch and another one where he attends a boy’s birthday party do a good job illustrating the demons that he has been dealing with.
However, I found there to be too many shots of Affleck’s character in the shower drinking a beer. Also, while the film tries to steer clear of the usual feel-good, happy sports genre formula with its realistic feel, the team’s turnaround seemed to come about too quickly.
While I thought that the players on the team all gave decent performances, I would have liked to have known them better. The best parts of the film are when Affleck has one-on-one scenes with them off the basketball court, letting himself and the players open up about their lives and struggles.
Affleck is excellent in the role, giving an understated, vulnerable performance, reportedly inspired by his own marital hardships. Madrigal is also quite effective in a smaller role, as someone who tries to help keep both the team as well as Affleck’s character on track.
The Way Back effectively shows how redemption and recovery can be a slow, but in the end, cathartic process. The finale is open-ended and hopeful, but has a true to life feel to it.
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