Directed by: Gavin O’Connor. Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar. Runtime: 1h 48 min. Released: March 6, 2020.
Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back is the latest addition to an unofficial cinematic universe – films with the key words Way Back in the title, starting with Emilio Estevez’ The Way, then a few months later with Peter Weir’s adventure drama The Way Back, and then in 2013 with my personal favourite The Way, Way Back.
Obviously these films have nothing to do with each other, but four is too many films with a generic name like this. The generic title is fair for O’Connor’s sports drama because it’s familiar, but it is also very good.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a high school basketball legend on his way to earning a scholarship before he walked away from the game. Years later, he’s given a shot at redemption coaching the team at his alma mater, a Catholic high school called Bishop Hayes.
Jack isn’t exactly the poster boy for the Catholic image. He’s an alcoholic skilled at hiding his boozing. We see him sneak liquor into his thermos at his construction job, and then plow through a fridge full of beer cans while deciding to take this coaching job. The scenes when Jack needs to be helped home because he can barely stand are hard to watch.
Affleck brings his A-game as the character and it’s the best male performance I’ve seen so far this year. It’s a quiet, tortured performance as he battles his inner demons. When we learn more about these demons, it is crushing, and I wouldn’t dare spoil that. I’ll just say this is one of Affleck’s finest performances and he is heartbreaking and powerful.
He’s great in the sports scenes, too. When Jack puts down the bottle and takes an interest in these kids, The Way Back inspires, and it inspires on and off the court. There are a couple of players that we learn about. Jack’s dynamic with Brandon Durrett (Brandon Wilson), a quiet player with a deep understanding of the game, is the most interesting. Brandon’s father doesn’t approve of the game as a career path and it’s fascinating watching Jack turn him into a leader.
Another main player is Marcus Wiggins (Melvin Gregg). He has attitude problems and thinks he’s the star of the team, and I like how his character is handled. Another player, Kenny Dawes (Will Ropp), is one-note as a ladies man, but he gets some good laughs. We learn the names of the other players – like Chubbs (Charles Lott Jr.), Bobby Freeze (Ben Irving) and Sam Garcia (Fernando Luis Vega), but the rest feel like they’re there to fill out a roster.
The film’s also not so much about the kids, it’s about Jack and how they change him. I like how Jack changes the team, too, and his coaching strategy brings a lot of comedy since it’s a Catholic school and he swears a lot, much to the chagrin of the team’s chaplain, Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin). The dynamic with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) is also strong in the film. Jack brings a winning mindset to the team and it charms in its sports moments. The dramatic scenes are also beautiful, and I like the way director Gavin O’Connor shoots drama.
The film is about Jack’s trauma and basketball. Basketball gives Jack a purpose and it’s used as healing, but the film never shows that it could cure everything for him. O’Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby write a strong film here. There’s a good balance to The Way Back. There’s importance in its sports scenes, but an equal importance to being a character study on alcoholism and trauma. That makes Jack’s way back even more compelling.