Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) once had a life filled with promise. In high school, he was a basketball phenom with a full ride to college, when suddenly, for reasons unknown, he walked away from the game, forfeiting his future. Now years later, Jack is stuck in a meaningless job and drowning in the alcoholism that cost him his marriage and any hope for a better life. When he is asked to coach the basketball team at his alma mater, which has fallen far since his glory days, he reluctantly accepts, surprising no one more than himself. As the boys start to come together as a team and win, Jack may have finally found a reason to confront the demons that have derailed him. But will it be enough to fill the void, heal the deep wounds of his past, and set him on the road to redemption?
What We Thought:
If you watch the trailer for The Way Back, you think the movie will be the standard uplifting movie about a down on his luck guy coaching up a ragtag group of underachievers and turning all their lives around. And in a way it sort of is. But if you look at the poster above you may notice the movie is Rated R. I didn’t know that going into the movie and after seeing it, it’s not the movie I was expecting.
And I’m glad it’s not. I saw the movie because I like Ben Affleck. I also like the film’s director, Gavin O’Connor, who made the fantastic sports movies Miracle and Warrior. But I’ll be honest, I was expecting a Disney type movie in the style of The Blind Side or Remember the Titans. Affleck plays a former high school star who turned his back on basketball and became a drunk. When his alma mater needs a new coach, he gets forced into the role. The players aren’t that good and haven’t made the playoffs since he was on the team. Of course a couple of players are better than they first seem and you expect them to start winning. It’s The Mighty Ducks but on the basketball court right?
Not exactly. As much as it’s about the players and basketball, it’s just as much about Affleck’s character Jack being a (barely) functioning alcoholic. The movie doesn’t have nudity or violence, but it’s Rated R because there are plenty of F-bombs and other swearing. He’s a drunk who puts himself into bad situations and even when he starts to sober up, still doesn’t know how to not be that type of guy. He cusses at his players, at the refs, at everyone even though he’s coaching a Catholic school team.
Jack drinks while working. He drinks at the school. He drinks at home. If you know alcoholism or alcoholics, Affleck absolutely nails the character. He’s fought his own demons and at times lost those battles in his personal life and he brings all of that to the table for this role. It might be his best performance to date because it’s probably his most personal performance. The way he taps his beers before opening them. The way he switches one out from the fridge to the freezer and has a shower beer as well, if you know that habit personally, you see all the little things in his performance that another actor couldn’t have brought to Jack. His Dazed & Confused co-star Matthew McConaughey went through what people referred to as a McConaissance, a run of performances that changed how people saw his acting abilities, I hope this starts a renaissance of sorts for Affleck.
The Way Back has its flaws. There are huge tonal shifts at times when it switches back and forth from the basketball storyline to Jack’s personal storyline. There’s a sub-story that isn’t even hinted at in the trailer that explains why Jack is the way he is. It doesn’t quite feel forced because you need the reasoning behind his behavior, but it definitely comes out of nowhere. You know he has issues and he’s separated from his wife, but the one trailer makes it seem like his father would play a bigger issue in the film and this sub-story is the main reason. But overall I did quite enjoy the movie. Affleck is good and O’Connor gives the film a lot of depth with an array of characters that bring light and dark to the story. I love the fact that it’s more of an open ended story than a Disney “We Are The Champions” flick although I think more people will be expecting that. It’s definitely not the family-friendly movie you might think it is and I greatly appreciate that.
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Producers: Gordon Gray, Jennifer Todd, Gavin O’Connor, Ravi Mehta
Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar and Glynn Turman