The Way Back, rated R
The Way Back is about a former star athlete returning to his high school to coach the basketball team. The film, featuring a strong performance from Ben Affleck, deals with serious themes and contains a significant amount of adult language. The film is directed by Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant), and written by Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace).
Jack Cunningham, played by two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting, Argo), works on a construction site. He pours alcohol into his coffee mug on the site and stops at a bar on the way home each night. His sister Beth, played by Michaela Watkins, is concerned with his drinking as we see him being often helped home by the same old man who used to carry his father home drunk from the same bar.
Jack was once a star basketball player at Bishop Hayes, leading his team to the state championship and being named player of the year 1993-1995. But he turned down a college scholarship, and hasn’t touched a basketball since.
Out of the blue, Jack gets a call from Father Edward Devine, played by John Aylward, the head priest at his alma mater. The basketball coach has had a heart attack, and will not be returning. Father Devine asks Jack if he would take over as the coach of a team that is quite frankly not very good. In fact, the last time the team made the playoffs was 25 years ago, when Jack was playing. Jack’s immediate response is to turn the priest down, but Father Devine asks him to think about it, and let him know in the morning as the team has a game in a few days. On a painful night to watch, we see Jack drink a 12 pack of beer as he repeatedly rehearses his call to Father Devine, but then surprisingly he accepts the position.Jack coaches the team along with the likeable assistant coach Dan, played by Al Madrigal, who is also the school’s math teacher. The team is not very good at all, nor do they have much discipline, with their tallest player Marcus, played by Melvin Gregg, taking the most three-point shots, making a very low percentage of them. Few fans attend their games as the team regularly gets beaten badly. Jeremy Radin, portrays the team’s chaplain Father Mark Whelan, who talks to Jack frequently about his use of adult language.
Trying to stay sober, Jack uses his skills as a coach to make changes in the team personnel, assignments and culture, instilling in them a sense of pride. Jack takes a particular interest in the quiet Brandon, played by Brandon Wilson, the best player on the team. Brandon lost his mother, and his father isn’t able to come to the games because he is taking care of his younger sons. After a 1-9 start, the team begins to turn things around, and has a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in more than 20 years.
Jack is separated from his wife Angela, played by Janina Gavankar (The Morning Show), and he finds out that she is now seeing someone else. We find out well into the film about a painful loss that the couple suffered, which led to Jack’s alcohol abuse and ultimately to their separation.
Will Jack be able to turn his life around and lead his former school to the playoffs? Will he and his wife be able move past the pain and suffering in their life and reconcile?
Affleck does an excellent job of portraying the former star athlete Jack Cunningham, as he battles alcohol abuse, which mirrors Affleck’s real-life substance abuse struggles.
Themes in the film include alcohol abuse, pain, grief, anger, family, marriage, coaching, regrets and bad decisions. Content concerns include serious themes, a significant amount of adult language, some of it of a sexual nature, and alcohol abuse.
The Way Back is more than your typical sports film where a coach turns a perennially losing team around. The film is not an easy one to watch, nor is it easy to recommend, as it deals with serious themes such as loss, suffering, marital difficulties and alcohol abuse, and contains a significant amount of adult language.