In a parallel universe, there’s a version of Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, the story of a grieving former high school basketball star tapped to coach the struggling team at his alma mater, that’s released by Disney. It’s got all the hallmarks of an underdog story from the House of Mouse, the “will they/won’t they in the face of adversity” storyline, and none of the prolific (and colorful) foul language on and off the court. It’s a line O’Connor (and co-writer Brad Ingelsby) do their best to tow, instead aiming for something more gritty and personal as Ben Affleck portrays a broken, damaged man trying to find his way through his trauma. In the end, it’s Affleck’s impressive performance (yes, you read that right) and a willingness to shift the focus from the team that would otherwise be at the center of a similar, Disney-fied story that save a film that could’ve easily succumbed to heavy-handed overtures and sentimentality.
And in a lot of ways, The Way Back does indulge in these devices, including an often overly melodramatic score (by Rob Simonsen), more lens flares and “edgy” camera angles (cinematography by Eduard Grau) than you can shake a stick at, and a reliance on the team’s evolving season (scores after each game thrown up on screen like headlines) to put a fine point on the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling at any given moment. But O’Connor smartly balances all this aggressive signaling with an ultimately deeply human story about love, loss, grief and recovery—something one assumes Affleck knows a thing or two about and may have informed his affecting performance.
An alcoholic working construction in his southern California hometown, Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is a former high school basketball phenom who inexplicably walked away from a full scholarship and the game entirely. Twenty-five years later, his marriage is ending, he’s drinking a 24-pack of beer a night and his sister (Michaela Watkins) is genuinely concerned for his well-being. He’s a regular at the local dive bar, a drunken mess night after night who’s helped home by friends looking out for him when he can’t look out for himself. A phone call from the principal at Bishop Hayes, where he led the team to championships during his time on the court, brings him back to the game as coach for a group of undisciplined, rowdy guys in dire need of some guidance.
O’Connor embraces the natural narrative arc of a team’s season, their progress and Jack’s paralleling each other for quite some time. The team’s shy star player, Brandon (Brandon Wilson), begins to flourish under Jack’s mentorship, bolstering his own confidence in the process; assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) calls Jack out for leaving beer cans strewn around his office, and it’s seemingly enough to nudge him, even momentarily, onto the straight and narrow. It’s not until Jack and his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar) attend a birthday party for their friend’s son that more is revealed about just what’s driven him off this particular cliff of despair (it’s alluded to in the trailer, but I won’t spoil it here), In doing so, the film establishes a depth that no Disney version, excessive swearing or not, could be capable of.
There’s a moment late in the team’s come-back season that, given the freeze-frame and cut to black, plays like the end of the film (maybe in the Disney version, it would be); they’ve come a long way, and Jack has learned a lot about what makes life worth living—all is, more or less, right with the world. Thankfully, O’Connor reminds us that this isn’t the team’s story but Jack’s, and there are more battles for him to fight, internally and otherwise. Despite everything his time on the court has given him, he’s still suffering, he’s still broken and hasn’t yet really healed at all.
This, ultimately, is why The Way Back succeeds in ways a more superficial, polished version never could. In its grit and chaos, in the mess of Jack’s life and all his bad decisions, nothing will ever truly change for him until he understands the universal truth of the human experience in its darkest moments: the only way out is through.