It’s meant as a firm compliment to say that The Way Back looks and feels like a film that could have been made at any time between the early 1970s and right now. With its working-class setting, unstable central character and unfashionably gritty look, this trenchant, eyes-wide-open study of a boozy high school basketball coach in dire need of redemption could be said to serve much the same purpose for lead Ben Affleck, who’s back to doing solid, serious work here after a too-long sojourn skulking about as Batman and other nondimensional characters.
The film’s title, then, applies in equal measure to the protagonist and the actor who plays him (perhaps the original title, The Has-Been, was a little too close for comfort); the former can polish off a fridge full of beer in a single evening, while the latter’s emotional and liquid intake issues in recent years have steadily received more attention than his acting. But far from seeming solipsistic or self-indulgent, the match of role and thespian here feels uncannily right at this moment, with Affleck bellying up to a character who left his life’s promise on the high school basketball court.
Redemption stories are a dime a dozen in Hollywood — however, not automatic career savers, so it’s notable how fully inhabited and all-in Affleck’s performance feels as Jack Cunningham, a beefy, bearded construction worker in the lower-middle-class L.A. community of San Pedro, near the docks. A Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Jack’s sister establishes the family tensions and Jack’s lack of interest in much of anything other than booze. This state of affairs speaks to the presence of a family tragedy — his young son has recently died — as well as to the fact that Jack hasn’t accomplished anything worth talking about since he led his basketball team to glory as a high school hoopster many years ago. This is a guy who feels very sorry for himself.
Some others who aren’t feeling too cheery about things at the moment are the men in charge at Bishop Hayes High School. The head coach of the b-ball team has just suffered a heart attack, no doubt contributed to by the Tigers’ woeful play over the past two decades; in fact, they haven’t amounted to jack squat since Jack’s glory days (they’re currently 1-9 on the season). Would the local hero consider stepping in to take over and lead this gaggle of skinny boys to a championship? Would you settle for a .500 season? How about two victories in a row?
The Way Back thus morphs, for a while at least, into an entirely appealing underdog story, one in which a newly on-the-wagon head coach goads and molds a bunch of undisciplined and undersized kids into becoming a genuinely competitive team. Director Gavin O’Connor is on solidly familiar ground here, having excelled with two previous gritty, uphill-climb sports stories, Miracle and Warrior, and the heart of the film has Jack realistically assessing what he’s got to work with and figuring out how to squeeze the most out of his modest resources.
Watching him interact with his assistant coach (an affable Al Madrigal) and the motley bunch of kids provides the film’s greatest pleasures. Having willingly taken on the challenge, Jack invests himself totally in it, addressing the varied specific needs of each player while simultaneously shaping them all into a viable unit. There’s the team’s lackadaisical showoff, Marcus (Melvin Gregg), who thinks he’s better than he actually is and needs to learn how to work hard and mesh with the unit; conceited hotshot Kenny (Will Ropp), who is challenged by Jack to discover his true potential; the outsize Chubbs (Charles Lott Jr.), a positive mood-setter; and outsider Brandon (Brandon Wilson), whose latent talents are mostly hidden under his protective shell.
In impressively short order, Jack whips this uninspiring group into shape, which in the process gets his mind off his otherwise miserable life. The turnarounds for both man and team undeniably possess a certain fairy tale aspect, but O’Connor’s rugged, unpretty style largely removes anything fanciful from the creative equation.
While Jack has proved to himself that he can rise to the occasion within the walls of a gymnasium, the outside world and his inner demons are other matters not so easily mastered. The final act of the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) makes plain that having a winning season is nothing but window dressing if one’s core issues are not directly addressed. Jack’s vulnerabilities and rage shockingly reassert themselves after some time on the back burner; no one goes quietly into the good night in this story.
Affleck gives the impression of intimate familiarity with the anguish and self-disgust that dominate Jack’s life; this character and project clearly meant something important to him, as the title bluntly suggests, and he gives it his all without overdoing the melodrama. The liveliness of the supporting cast serves as a welcome contrast to the star’s heavy lifting, and the gritty realism of the environment provides the pic with a vivid societal context.
Production companies: Jennifer Todd Pictures, Mayhem Pictures, Film Tribe
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Will Ropp, Fernando Luis Vega, Charles Lott Jr., Melvin Gregg, Glynn Turman
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby
Producers: Gordon Gray, Jennifer Todd, Gavin O’Connor, Ravi Mehta
Executive producers: Robert J. Dohrmann, Brad Ingelsby, Kevin McCormick, Mark Ciardi, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Kaitlyn Taaffe Cronholm, Madison Ainley
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Keith P. Cunningham
Costume designer: Cindy Evans
Editor: David Rosenbloom
Music: Rob Simonsen
Rated R, 108 minutes