There’s a lot to like about a filmmaker showing restraint when working with a tried and true formula. The Way Back is director Gavin O’Connor’s third sports drama, following Miracle and Warrior, and each of these films find a way to let the story unfold at its own pace. That success generally comes from having good actors in their respective roles, and The Way Back is no different. Regardless of how focus needs to be placed on the real-life struggles of star Ben Affleck, he’s putting plenty into what we see in a film less concerned with dropping dimes than it is grounding potentially maudlin material into a lived-in reality. As a result, audiences can save the corniness for another movie, as this one proves the strength coming out of honesty.
The setup is pretty straightforward. Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star, now a high-functioning alcoholic in his late forties. He’s offered the chance to be the new head basketball coach at his old high school. After a night of heavy drinking to help him think it over, Jack accepts the gig. The team stinks, assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) is an algebra teacher doing his best to make time, and the head of the school isn’t really concerned with the boys winning games so much as being good kids.
A film like this can push into a variety of directions, calling to mind plenty of other sports-themed films before it. The Way Back isn’t reinventing anything, but it does manage to earn the benefit of the doubt in an early, pivotal scene. After bringing little energy to a game and some practices, Jack finally decides to pump up his players. Let me rephrase that. Jack calls a timeout so he can hurl swear words at these kids, motivating them to be more proactive against their showboating rivals. They lose the game, but it helps.
For a film that never has the audience questioning whether Jack will find his way on the road to recovery and redemption, it gets a lot of mileage out of the man’s prickliness. Question the man’s drinking – Jack lashes out. Make a bad call – Jack’s rage is on display. The thing is, Affleck brings a likable presence. Even with a heftier physique and some wild arm tattoos suggesting he’s made a lot of interesting choices in his life, Jack’s stewing anger doesn’t take away from the level of engagement the actor naturally brings to the role.
Perhaps this provides a window into why so many actors take on the opportunity to play coaches. As leaders of a team whom you want to see succeed as both the coach and in their personal lives, these are malleable characters. They can have any number of flaws allowing the actor a chance to dig in, and yet the audience is generally always on their side. For The Way Back, writer Brad Ingelsby does what is required to supply Jack with plenty of pathos, especially as the film opens up for us to understand why he’s so despondent.
At the same time, the film never reaches for areas carved into the story by way of over-the-top plot contrivances. That’s a result of doing well by the supporting players. Michaela Watkins is Jack’s sister, and their relationship is defined by brief bits of dialogue that are never overly judgmental. Glynn Turman shows up on occasion to escort Jack back home from his nights at the bar, with no explanation needed for how these two relate to each other, let alone how long this has been going on. Janina Gavankar has the typically thankless role of the ex-wife, who sidesteps trite histrionics in favor of being presented on the same level as her former husband.
In his efforts to properly coach his team, which Jack manages to do quite well, one of the main focuses is keeping an eye towards all the little moments, picking up on every rebound, bounce pass, and anything else to allow their team an opportunity to score. The Way Back similarly has a stronger sense of relying on these minor touches to deliver on the film’s confidence. Along with some expected, but necessary and well-acted blow-out moments, note how Jack taps on his beer cans differently while taking down the endless supply in his fridge. Track the various combinations of baggy, comfortable clothing choices made for Jack throughout the film.
One can look further when noting areas where the film takes some significant turns. While held at a minimum, there are some effective beats between Jack and the various team members. There’s also an excellent piece of acting from Madrigal, who sheds some of his comedic layers for a scene that simply rests on a heavy sigh he takes, shot from behind, in response to an unfortunate turn from Jack. Through all of this, O’Connor comfortably rests in the backseat, letting a few long takes here and there sketch out some minor visual flourishes doing what’s needed to continually highlight the actors.
Whether or not The Way Back digs into an emotional well for the viewer based on either the story being told or an understanding of how much Affleck is wrestling with to pull off what is needed, the point is made. Here’s a film that knows which basketball games to show, and how to avoid a generically crowd-pleasing climax. Instead, watching the pieces come together in a messier manner means appreciating all of the little details helping the audience to get there. This may sound corny, but that’s a better way to earn a slam dunk.