With The Way Back, director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Miracle) has prepared a very familiar and very comforting, audience-pleasing stew. Sports movies have long been, throughout the broad history of the genre, reliable comfort food that can reasonably be applauded for cleaving to traditional, predictable story beats; daring originality is welcome in sports movies, of course, but falling back on cliché is not necessarily a vice for them. So while O’Conner, a slightly more thoughtful director than your average filmmaker, has perhaps added a few generous tablespoons of welcome soulful melancholy to The Way Back – effectively producing a satisfying meal – its baseline flavors are what make the film ultimately a genial and emotional entertainment. The rest of the review shall be, I assure you, free from further food metaphors.In The Way Back, Ben Affleck – operating in full-on sad-sack mode, perhaps his best note as an actor – plays a bitter alcoholic construction worker named Jack whose life is clearly on the downward slope; in the first five minutes of the film, we see him sneaking beers at work, slipping gin into his coffee mug for the drive home, and taking a few depressive chugs from a can he keeps next to his shampoo in the shower. The Way Back, then is going to be less a film about winning championships and Big Games, and more about the delicate process of recovery from addiction. Jack is also a former basketball star from his high school days, and those who meet him mention that fact frequently, often compounding how badly he’s burned out. Into his grey milieu, Jack is offered a coaching position at his old high school where he is invited to take the school’s flagging basketball team from – and we can all probably recite this part in unison – being the losing-est team in the state to being a hard-working band of teammates who have all begun to realize their talent and potential.
Yes, there will be plenty of moments wherein a crucial basket is scored right at the buzzer, or where the film’s music will cut out for a split second while a basketball sails tensely through the air on its way to winning – or losing – a big game.
The teenage ball players all have well-realized personalities – the hot dog, the lothario, the angry one, the shy champion who Just Needs to Realize His Potential – but they are mere supporting players to the world of the adults who spend most of The Way Back’s running time discussing the banal details of adult life, the kind of details that seem so dull when one is a youth, but that are the very pulp of existence as a middle-aged man. Very slowly, we begin to learn the great tragedies that Jack has experienced, the true nature of the relationships he has with his sister (Michaela Watkins) and his ex-wife (Janina Avankar), and what drove him to drink in the first place.
These tragic banalities – paired with an ineffable sense of geographical authenticity – are The Way Back’s greatest strengths, allowing it to poke its head ever so slightly above other sports movies of its ilk. Affleck is convincing as a has-been who hasn’t known joy in all too long (easily aided by the fact that Affleck himself has wrestled with alcohol), and director O’Connor is too emotionally intelligent to allow mere basketball victories become the solution to his problems. Indeed, just when one might expect the film to begin cresting and climaxing to the conclusion audiences have been trained to expect from such narratives, The Way Back sinks into a calmer, sadder place, leaving us with a different kind of catharsis beyond cheering and Gatorade showers.