The Way Back, the new film directed by Gavin O’Connor, tracks as perhaps the fourth comeback for star Ben Affleck. In real life, he’s gone through two collapsed superhero cycles, an auteur phase, and a high-profile failed marriage, leaving him near 50 and (reportedly) alone. In the film, he plays Jack Cunningham, a California high school basketball legend who gave up the game, took up drinking, and now spends his days working construction and nights at the bar. The narrative attraction between actor and role is obvious—and what the entire film is counting on.
With his days blurring together, a nudge is all Jack needs to take over as his former school’s basketball coach. The team is bad and, naturally, it’ll be up to him to turn things around. As with everything else in Jack’s life, it’s a tall order. As co-written with Brad Ingelsby, O’Connor folds this sports narrative—complete with vibrant player personalities and Al Madrigal as their nebbish assistant coach—into a broader tale of alcoholism and despair, the details of one filling in and informing the other. The film’s layers take some time to peel back—and there are perhaps one too many—but the payoff is heartrending nonetheless. With respect to O’Connor’s tactile and unobtrusive direction, the credit for The Way Back‘s shape and momentum must be given to Affleck. He clearly knew what he was doing in taking this role, and he sells it for all its worth, easily transcending the film’s cliched trappings and messaging.
Now I must admit to experiencing some PTSD while watching parts of The Way Back. Not because I’m an alcoholic, a struggling construction worker, or approaching divorce, but because of the basketball. This film so understands the specific stress of high school competition it becomes easy to forgive the excesses and trust its choices instead. It knows winning a basketball game can’t cure alcoholism, resolve grief, or erase regret, but it can remind a man like Jack (or perhaps Ben) of what else he can lose. And that there’s time still left on the clock.