Ben Affleck eases persuasively into The Way Back, a sports/redemption drama that’s playing way below his level — and into the role of Jack Cunningham, a former high school hoops star who once passed on a free ride at the University of Kansas. Instead, the ex-star athlete took a dead-end construction job in L.A. and hit the bottle hard to blot out a divorce, self-hatred, and personal tragedy (one that, to be honest, the movie didn’t really need to drive its point home … but whatever). The movie is always cooking up outside events for him to react to, even when Affleck makes it clear that man’s demons are inside. The first big one comes when this down-on-his-luck loser is offered a job to coach the failing basketball team at Bishop Hayes High, his alma mater. Never mind that he’s never coached before. Jack needs to slug a thermos full of vodka to just consider the idea.
It’s no accident that The Way Back slightly mirrors Affleck’s own highly publicized bouts with alcoholism, relapse, and recovery. The actor-writer-director — who’s played everyone from Batman to Jack Ryan, won an Oscar for the Good Will Hunting script he co-wrote with Matt Damon and collected the Best Picture prize for Argo — suddenly found himself slammed with commercial fizzles (Live By Night, To the Wonder), personal setbacks, and numerous struggles with addiction. You can see why a movie with an uplifting message about not being derailed by adversity must have appealed to him.
Plus director Gavin O’Connor knows his way around athletic-event films (Miracle, Warrior) and had worked successfully with Affleck on The Accountant; he’s also aware that an up-from-the-bottom drama needs to do more than advance its star’s therapy. It has to strike a raw nerve and touch a universal chord — an achievement that regrettably comes in fits and starts here. O’Connor is stymied by a generic script from Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) that keeps drifting into the shallows of soap opera. Is it enough for a movie to have its heart in the right place?
Things start with a thud as the film treats Jack like a modern-day Job, faced with constant sorrows. He lashes out at his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gvankar), for “fucking some rich guy” long before their divorce is final. He resents his supportive sister, Beth (Michaela Watkins), for reminding him of his failures. She’s also the one who takes in their widowed mother, who doubles as a constant reminder of life with their alcoholic father; you can see in her eyes the frustration with a brother who’s repeating Dad’s missteps every time he staggers home from bar-hopping and binge-drinking. Even Dan (Al Madrigal), the assistant coach at Hayes, berates Jack for his temper and not even bothering to hide the beer cans in his office.
Luckily, the shaggy, lived-in basketball scenes with the Hayes Tigers that give this underdog tale help to hold our affections. Affleck seems to respond viscerally to working with the young cast, selected for their prowess in front of a camera as well as on the court. Melvin Gregg excels as a showboating student, as does Will Roop as a cheerleader-chasing player, and Brandon Wilson as a loner who needs to stop isolating and take charge. That the new coach also needs to follow that same advice — be the leader you know you can be — gives the film the energy it needs. Standing on the sidelines and growing more confident as he instructs the Tigers to play as if their lives depended it, Jack literally opens up before our eyes.
Cornball? Maybe. But it helps that O’Connor dexterously avoids the usual lump-in-the-throat tear-jerking. And it helps even more that the star radiates a soul-deep belief that it’s the small steps that matter more than a rah-rah victory. He makes us root for Jack — just as The Way Back makes us root for Affleck, no matter how long the road ahead.