Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenom who left a full scholarship at the University of Kansas on the table as he walked away from a promising career and into years of addiction. “I spent a lot of time hurting myself,” he says. “I made a lot of bad decisions. I got a lot of regrets.”
Cut to years later. Jack’s drinking—he starts the day with a beer in the shower—has cost him everything but when his alma mater recruits him to coach their basketball team he reluctantly agrees. “Is the team any good? he asks. “No,” he’s told. “In fact, the last time they made the playoffs, you were still playing.”
The team is in tatters, a laughing stock in the league but being back on the court gives Jack a renewed sense of being. “It keeps me busy,” he says. “Keeps my mind off other things.” As he molds the ragtag team into a force to be reckoned with, he discovers that the inspirational lessons he is teaching the kids—”The players decide the game!”—apply to his life as well.
“The Way Back” has the form of many other sports flicks—a new coach helps a failing team find their mojo—but this one digs deeper to focus on the characters rather than the rah rah of the sports. It’s “The Days of Wine and Rose” with basketball and a bleary eyed, beer-bellied and vulnerable Affleck at the center.
A quiet movie that tells the story of a man living in quiet desperation, “The Way Back” benefits greatly from Affleck’s raw but understated performance. Jack is damaged goods, a man wounded by life who subverts his pain by staring at the bottom of a pint glass. Director Gavin O’Connor gives Affleck nowhere to hide, shooting up-close-and-personal, and you can practically smell the beer breath as he shouts instructions at his players from the sidelines.
Rebuilding his life doesn’t come easily for Jack and the lack of easy life hacks, and a great central performance, elevates “The Way Back” above the run-of-the-mill sports drama.