It’s tempting to view “The Way Back” as star Ben Affleck’s atonement for his own behavior. Not only is Affleck’s low-key performance the best thing about this watchable if unremarkable addiction and sports drama, but it’s impossible not to see Affleck’s soul-baring performance as one of self-reflection.
Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a Los Angeles construction worker and heavy drinker who guzzles beer even when he’s in the shower. He secretly swigs from a spiked coffee tumbler before turning up late to a family Thanksgiving dinner. His exasperated sister (Michaela Watkins) tries to talk to him about his drinking and his exwife’s concerns for him, but Jack reacts with defensiveness that quickly escalates to anger. It’s clear he’s made a mess of his life.
The film follows the redemption formula when Jack gets a call from his Catholic high school alma mater, where he was once a star basketball player. The school is run by Father Devine (John Aylward, Affleck’s “Armageddon” co-star), who asks Jack to return to Bishop Hays High to coach the team, which hasn’t had a winning season since Jack’s glory days more than two decades ago. Since high school jocks are such a revered commodity, it seems odd that Father Devine doesn’t know anything about what happened to the school’s lauded athlete in the years since graduation. His name and trophies are prominently displayed all over the place.
After falling further into the abyss and some soul-searching, Jack takes the job. There are some entertaining, if predictable, scenes on the court that are reminiscent of “Hoosiers” (1986), the great high school basketball movie that starred Gene Hackman as a troubled coach who turns the team and himself around. Affleck is saddled with a subpar team that needs to learn how to win. The boys don’t emerge as characters much beyond types, such as showboat Marcus (Melvin Gregg) who has to be brought down a peg and Brandon (Brandon Wilson), the quiet, hardworking player who needs a push to find the confidence to be a leader. They are mostly a collection of clichés that simply serve the story.
In “Hoosiers,” Hackman had the town drunk, played by Dennis Hopper, as his assistant coach. Affleck gets an equally rich performance from Al Madrigal as the nerdy math teacher with a solid moral center who serves as his watchful assistant. Also effective is Jeremy Radin’s Father Whelan, who sits on the bench and gently berates Jack for his hair-trigger temper and bad language when arguing with referees.
Director Gavin O’Connor, who worked with Affleck in “The Accountant” (2016), knows how to stage a sports movie. He’s the guy who directed “Miracle” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, so the game action is lively and realistic.
But “The Way Back” is best when it mixes the human and sports drama in surprising ways. As Jack pushes his team to concentrate on the little things and to “play with a chip” on their shoulders, they slowly start to put together a few wins. The climax isn’t the Big Game, as one might expect. Instead, the focus is on Jack’s continued downward spiral, which Affleck plays with both humility and fearlessness. He fully goes there, downplaying his natural charisma and carrying himself with the heaviness of a man defeated by sorrow and self-loathing. It’s his most powerful performance in years.
When he meets up with his exwife (Janina Gavankar), we get the backstory, which helps explain why Jack is such a mess. He’s grieving and angry over a major loss. It’s a moving revelation, and although it explains some of Jack’s behavior, the film doesn’t shy away from portraying the selfishness and destructiveness that usually accompanies addiction. “The Way Back” doesn’t need to add on daddy issues to telegraph Jack’s pain as if it didn’t trust the audience to empathize with him without ladling on the trauma.
Hanging out at the dive bar next door to his apartment, Jack knocks back shots as he holds court with a sad mix of swagger and boorishness that will be recognizable to many. Night after night, he’s helped into his house by the bar’s owner. The film doesn’t sugarcoat what it means to be a sloppy drunk who can’t help himself from sabotaging the good things in his life.
Despite its sports movie clichés, “The Way Back” is a modestly moving film, thanks to Affleck’s sobering depiction of an alcoholic stumbling along the slow road to recovery and redemption.