Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is an unrepentant has-been. In high school, Jack led his basketball team to statewide glory, not to mention an entire rafter’s worth of banners. Now plunk into middle-age, Jack continues the glacial process of pissing away every ounce of potential he ever had. Sweaty, bloated, and in a state of perpetual drowsiness, Jack hunkers down in dive bars and plows through cheap beer with destructive abandon. One day, the head priest at his old high school approaches Jack him a job offer: Come back and coach his former team for the remainder of the season. Naturally, Jack is reluctant. After all, any responsibility might derail his unending bender. Still, in a great scene, a tiny voice within Jack still craves redemption. Over the course of fridge full of beer cans, that voice wins.
A lot of what follows will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen enough sports movies. Or any dramas about alcoholics. And damned if a lot of it doesn’t connect anyway: Jack inherits a team of entitled slackers. The star point guard (Brandon Wilson) meekly demurs from his abilities as a natural leader. Marcus (Melvin Gregg), who occupies the center position, is a chucker with a bad attitude. The team in between gets comprised of jokesters and overachievers–nobody who anybody would bet on to win anything.
Will Jack whip these ragamuffins into playing shape? At the same time, can he win the impossible battle against his own demons? You can bet the whole Batcave that the answer to both questions is a resounding “yeppers.” What gives The Way Back a good deal of its impact lies in the sincerity of Affleck’s performance. Affleck himself has struggled with alcoholism, so tackling a role like this requires an immense amount of bravery. He brings an unwavering power and conviction to Jack, and this alone makes the entire film worth watching.
The Way Back does have a key flaw, and it occurs about halfway through the story. In the second, the script detours into straight melodrama, in an attempt to further explain Jack’s physical and spiritual plunge. It cheapens a lot of what the movie has accomplished up to that point. Many–if not most–alcoholics can’t point to concrete reasons why they drink as much as they do. If anything, the absence of any clear explanation only deepens their frustration. Eventually, alcoholics must confront the fact they have a subtle, destructive, and unrelenting disease. This movie attempts to use a screenwriting tactic to explain why Jack spirals out of control, and it doesn’t work.
Don’t let that completely steer you away. The Way Back is still a good movie. You’ll root hard for Jack to jump out of the frying pan and away from the the fire before it’s too late. Those basketball scenes build quite a bit of suspense, as well. The Way Back might cover a lot of familiar ground, but at least it does so with quite a bit of skill and sensitivity.
108 minutes. R.