The makers of The Way Back certainly know basketball. They draw up the right plays, use the right terminology, and accurate depict interactions between coaches, players, and officials.
It’s enough to make you wish such strategy had been applied to the storytelling, as well, in this earnest yet thoughtful drama from director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) about redemption through sports.
The film marks a return to form for Ben Affleck, who drives this surprisingly meticulous and low-key character study in which the worthwhile intentions succumb to an abundance of calculations and clichés. In other words, you know how the game will be won, even if you don’t know what the exact score will be.
Affleck stars as Jack, a former basketball star at a Catholic high school who spends his lonely days working construction jobs and drowning in beer and liquor. Through a random call from his alma mater, he learns the school is in a tight spot and needs a new coach. Fortunately, given his status, the background checks are minimal.
The ragtag squad is mired in a losing streak and hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Still, the arrangement seems mutually beneficial. As the team’s fortunes take a turn for the better, Jack still struggles to shake his demons. Despite his initial reluctance, Jack has plenty at stake, even if he won’t admit it.
As details are gradually revealed about his past, we learn why he’s dealing with grief and regret, mixed emotions regarding his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar), lingering hostility toward the rest of his family, doubts about his spirituality, and an overall pessimistic outlook.
Even when his tough-love coaching style yields positive results, and he finds purpose in his own life, those around Jack know he could still hit rock bottom and lose it all.
The film is an unsettling portrait of alcoholism in large part because Affleck digs deep with this complex portrayal, both during the sequences on the sideline and the introspective moments away from the court.
Although the players are more stereotypical, and Jack bonds with them too easily, the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) mostly avoids cheap sentiment and underdog formula. It also lacks subtlety and surprise, and strains to be edgy — which is why The Way Back leaves you with a case of March madness.