The convergence of high-school basketball and alcoholism inevitably invokes Hoosiers, one of the greatest sports movies ever made. As if leaning into the comparison, The Way Back even gives one coach a heart attack and has the coach protagonist ejected from a game for raging at a referee.
But screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Warrior) have other ideas. The Way Back blends the beats of two familiar genres, the underdog sports movie and the addiction and recovery movie, in the process finding a rhythm that feels at once familiar and not quite like anything I’ve seen before.
The two story elements overlap at Bishop Hayes High School in Los Angeles’ working-class San Pedro neighborhood, where Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham, a bearded, heavyset construction worker and hard-drinking but mostly functional alcoholic, was once a high-school basketball star with a seemingly bright future.
Jack isn’t looking to take on something new when he gets a call from his alma mater. The school’s longtime head, Father Devine (John Aylward), explains that their head coach suffered a heart attack and that their struggling team, the Tigers, could use an infusion of the vitality Jack brought to their game.
Jack, who has never coached and hasn’t touched a basketball in decades, tries to decline, but Father Devine insists that he sleep on it. In the harrowing evening binge that follows, Jack rehearses a series of increasingly ill-formed refusals.
What ultimately moves him to accept? The film shrewdly skips to Jack showing up at the next day’s practice. I like to think that in the end he just can’t say no to this priest from his youth.
The screenwriter’s brother, Martin Ingelsby, is head coach at the University of Delaware and played at Archbishop Carroll High School in Philadelphia and at Notre Dame. Their father, Tom, was a star player at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and at Villanova before going on to play for the NBA and ABA.
Clearly Ingelsby knows about two things: basketball and Catholic education. That life experience is reflected in the film’s authenticity in various respects, from the strategies Jack employs on the court for coaching a dark-horse team playing better opponents to the school culture at Bishop Hayes.
It’s likewise impossible to separate the persuasive messiness of Affleck’s performance and of Jack’s troubled relationship with alcohol with the actor’s well-documented, longtime struggles in this area and his repeated stints in rehab. (The film leans into this, too, with early shots almost overtly echoing the “Sad Affleck” memes of a few years ago, accompanied by somber, muted scoring.)
Perhaps Ingelsby knows something about alcoholism, too, since the screenplay is sharp with insight here. An early conversation at a Thanksgiving family reunion between Jack and his sister, Beth (Michaela Watkins), is a deft portrayal of the kind of awkward, circling exchange that occurs between a caring family member attempting a ginger intervention in the life of a loved one she doesn’t see often and the defensively indignant addict in denial.
What makes Jack’s denial harder to overcome is that he gets up every morning, drives himself to work, and puts in a full day at the construction site. He’s drinking all the time — the shower-head caddy basket that holds his beer each morning where he can reach for it along with his shampoo is among the most telling touches — and some nights he needs a ride home from the bar, if not a hand getting up the steps to his apartment door, but he gets through the day.
Now that Jack and his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, The Morning Show), are separated, no one is close enough to Jack for his drinking to cause friction as long as he doesn’t want to confront it.
That changes, of course, once he begins coaching at Bishop Hayes.
The team has a long tradition of failure, and Jack’s lack of coaching experience and undisciplined personality make for a rough start. But Jack knows basketball, and the gradual reawakening of that part of himself is moving to watch.
Among many small, thoughtful touches, Jack asks his assistant coach, an algebra teacher named Dan (comedian Al Madrigal) who was a benchwarmer in Jack’s glory days, what the dress code is for games. For head coach, Dan answers, coat and tie. (Jack technically fulfills this requirement at every game while still looking like a slob with his shirt untucked.)
As he did in Miracle, the veteran sports director carefully builds up the team’s game from their indifferent early play to their aggressive competitive style, at the same time ramping up the tempo and drama of the camerawork and editing.
If Miracle left most of its players undifferentiated, The Way Back efficiently develops a more vivid cast of characters, with the most attention given to a quiet player named Brandon (Brandon Wilson) whom Jack singles out not only for his superior skills but also for his deeper understanding of the game.
Unsurprisingly, with Jack’s short temper and foul mouth, the school’s code of conduct is a recurring challenge, and more than once the team’s chaplain, Father Mark (Mark Whelan), has to push back on him, most notably after an egregious display of poor sportsmanship in coaching at a demoralizing defeat.
When Father Mark gently brings up the topic of Jack’s R-rated language, Jack tries a theological dodge: With all the bad stuff going on in the world, does the priest really think God gives a fig, or something, about his language?
But the chaplain is unfazed: At Bishop Hayes, he says, the mission is to “integrate our faith into our lives” — and so, yes, Father Mark thinks God gives a fig about Jack’s language. (This is not one of those cases where Jack reaches for one of the harsher words he could have used, which is fortunate since the priest repeats the word back to him.)
Later there’s a more drastic confrontation with the other priest, Father Devine. As much as we empathize with Jack in this difficult scene, Father Devine is not only in the right, but clearly finds the moment as painful as Jack does.
A wholly positive Catholic priest, let alone two, in a mainstream Hollywood non-horror film is essentially unheard of today. The Way Back not only makes Father Devine and Father Mark moral authorities, it also makes them individuals. (Another small but notable touch: Head priest Father Devine wears clerical blacks while Father Mark wears street clothes.)
The religious element is low-key, as it was in Warrior, but it’s better integrated into the story here.
Many sports movies have issues larger than sports on their minds. In The Way Back the larger issues of Jack’s personal life subvert genre expectations with a third-act crisis in which Jack’s life becomes both more complicated and simpler.
Jack’s line about God caring about language isn’t his most theologically fraught; it’s clear that the anger he lives with is directed at God, and he has a despairing line about life after death that is not rebutted by a priest or anyone else. On the other hand, a priest-led prayer before the final game stands in significant contrast to the limitations that Jack, even at his best, brought to his coaching style and attitude.
More important, ultimately, than the interweaving of the two storylines is the balance they provide each other.
The young Bishop Hayes Tigers players stand in some ways where Jack stood decades earlier, the present bright, the future uncertain. Jack stands at a crossroads of his own, his past a long pileup of bad choices, consequences and heartache earned and unearned.
The Way Back finds a satisfying note to end on, but what matters most as the credits roll is the way forward.
Caveat Spectator: Much heavy drinking and drunkenness; limited profanity, a few crude sexual remarks/jokes, and frequent harsh and crude language. Mature viewing.