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The Way Back

by on March 7, 2020
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The sub-genre of “inspirational sports movies about coaches overcoming steep odds” is one that often seems tiringly stuck to formula, more so than maybe any other genre outside of mainstream rom-coms or biopics about musicians. This “coach movie” genre has produced plenty of decent films, no doubt. Coach Carter, Remember the Titans, and Hoosiers are all pretty well loved, and even Glory Road and McFarland, USA are not bad picks for a feel-good sports movie.

But many of them (most of the aforementioned included) are, admittedly, saccharine to a fault and feature hackneyed plotting and emotional beats. As it goes, a new, unfamiliar coach takes over a team of rag-tag kids with not a lot of skill but a lot of heart, and turns them into an underdog force to be reckoned with, leading them to the climactic big game. There’s usually a tacked-on subplot about the coach’s personal life; how this coaching job is helping him cope with a tragedy or self-loathing, or it’s somehow his shot at redemption in life. It’s a way of tritely selling the movie on the idea that it’s “not just about the sport; it’s about life.”

But really, that big game at the end usually ends up driving home the fact that it really was kinda just about the sport the whole time.

Gavin O’Connor’s new Ben Affleck vehicle, The Way Back, features a similar kind of personal-stakes plot for Coach Jack Cunningham. But it’s how the film handles that personal subplot that helps differentiate it from most other coach movies. This time, it really isn’t about the sport. In fact, as the film goes on, it only becomes less and less about the sport. And paired with a grimy and clearly personal turn from Affleck, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

Jack was a legend at Bishop Hayes, his Catholic alma mater, where he was the school’s star basketball player. He was good enough back then to earn a full ride to the University of Kansas, which he promptly threw away upon attending. Now, middle-aged and grizzly, Jack is an alcoholic construction worker, separated from his wife Angie (Janina Gavankar) for over a year. He’s aimlessly drinking away his days in solitude, with the exception of his buddies at the bar he frequents daily after work.

That is, until he receives a call from the presiding bishop at his old high school, asking him to fill in for their basketball coach who suffered a heart attack. Jack is naturally reluctant, unsure of what he can possibly bring to the table after so many years away from the game. But the school is insistent that Jack is exactly what the program needs to get back on track. He begrudgingly accepts.

In typical “coach movie” fashion, Jack is introduced to the band of misfits that makes up his team. They can definitely talk trash, but they shoot like it too. All the conventional roles are present: there’s the distracted loverboy, the rebellious egoist, the humble and unsure best-player with an untapped natural talent for leadership, and the kid who is quite literally in the wrong sport—the gang’s all here. And so Jack sets to work, between days at the construction site and late nights at the bar, attempting to whip these kids into shape.

But basketball is hardly the center of this story—in fact, most of the games are cut together in brief montage and summarized in a freeze-frame with the final score popping up on screen; a streak of losses at the start of the season to show how bad they are, and as they begin to learn how to play as a team, a streak of wins to show their turnaround.

The real focus of The Way Back is Jack’s own problems. He now uses to drinking to cope with what he perceives as failure—as a husband, as a son, as a guardian. O’Connor spends more time showing Jack piss-drunk, stumbling home from the bar, or clearing out a 30-pack of beer from his fridge, than on the court coaching basketball. It’s effectively hard to watch, especially when he’s clearly surrounded by people who care about him. His estranged wife Angie checks in on him and invites him to social events just to make sure he’s alright. Jack’s conversations with Angie are where we really get to know more about how he has hurt others as well as himself.

It’s clear from Affleck’s performance that the role struck a chord with his own real-life struggles with addiction and mental health. He’s stated in interviews that the film served as a form of therapy for him while he was still in the throes of unchecked alcoholism and then in rehab. What we see on screen is probably Affleck’s purest and most authentic performance in years. It’s nothing especially showy or grandiose, but it’s exactly what the film needs: a subtle, raw display of numbness and pain in alternation.

Less perfectly handled, though still potent, is the primary source of Jack’s self-hate and depression, which is dropped on us further than halfway through the film. Without giving too much away, it’s immediately understandable why Jack responded to the tragedy the way he did, but it also feels somewhat underwritten for being the key motivator for Jack’s current state of being.

The Way Back has a pretty self-evident message, apparent from its title. It is a story of new beginnings, acceptance of grief and pain and finding the strength to look ahead at what can still be possible. It’s not really a sports film. It’s a character drama that uses basketball as one of a few key backdrops on which to paint the story. And it mostly handles that drama quite well. O’Connor’s decision to steer the focus so strongly toward Jack’s personal life rather than the sport helps keep the film from falling into the same traps as other coach movies. At the same time, however, some of the drama here could have been better set up in the beginning, or more thoroughly articulated later on. Jack’s ball players also take a hit, as characters, since they aren’t given the time on-screen to build clear relationships with Jack. It’s kind of just implied, through their attitudes at practice and their skill in the game, that they are placing their trust in their new coach.

It’s not a perfect redemption movie, nor a perfect coach movie. It’s not a perfect examination of alcoholism or grief either. But it does combine the lot in a way that I haven’t quite seen before. It’s a quiet, anguished blend of hope and ugliness. By its closing minutes, The Way Back is clear in its conviction that the game doesn’t matter. And that’s enough to make it stand out as a different kind of coach movie.



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