Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Premise: A former high school basketball star turned alcoholic (Ben Affleck) is recruited to coach his ala mater’s team. As the student athletes improve, the coach faces his demons and starts to get his life in order.
What Works: The Way Back is both a sports film and an addiction narrative. These two elements fit together pretty well and The Way Back satisfies on both fronts. Ben Affleck plays the alcoholic coach and this is one of Affleck’s best performances. His character has a drinking problem but he is mostly functional in daily life and Affleck captures that tension with a lot of credibility. Movies oftentimes glamorize substance abuse and make drunkenness laughable. The Way Back does not do that and this man’s self-harm is contextualized. Affleck’s character has suffered a number of personal tragedies and the actor is quite good at conveying that especially in scenes shared with his estranged spouse (Janina Gavankar). We can see the history of pain in the unspoken moments between the couple. The surprise of The Way Back is Al Madrigal as the assistant basketball coach. Madrigal is best known as a cast member of The Daily Show but he demonstrates a talent for drama and he is convincing as the assistant coach who is caught between the team and Affleck’s character. The Way Back is also a sports film and the basketball scenes capture the physicality of the sport as well as the pressure put on the athletes by the crowd. The montage sequences are effective, incorporating expository information efficiently and tracking the team’s progress. The filmmakers of The Way Back know their genre and the movie delivers what viewers look for in a sports film.
What Doesn’t: The premise of The Way Back has an inherent credibility problem. Affleck’s character was a star basketball player in his teens but now, two decades later, he has no coaching experience and he is a well-known alcoholic. It’s hard to believe that a high school would hire someone like this to be their coach. The addiction half of the story, although well-acted by Affleck, is underwritten. We get the depth of his alcohol abuse and the traumas behind it but the actual recovery after hitting bottom is simplified and skips over the most difficult and potentially interesting parts of rehabilitation. There aren’t many surprises in The Way Back and it mostly works through the well-trod conventions of addiction and sports stories.
Bottom Line: The Way Back is a satisfying mix of the sports and addiction genres. The movie does not reinvent those genres but it does do them well and Ben Affleck’s performance elevates the movie.
Episode: #794 (March 22, 2020)