Whose life doesn’t have a crazy mixture of heartbreak and joy, despair and hope, death and life, weakness and redemption? Jack (Ben Affleck) can surely relate to all those things in the new film, “The Way Back," written by Brad Ingelsby and Gavin O’Connor who also directs.
We meet Jack as a hopeless drunk, putting beer or harder stuff in his coffee mug at work, a can in his shower caddy at home, and going through a case in one night. He shows up at his sister, Beth’s (Michaela Watkins), home for Thanksgiving with a drink already in hand.
The contrasts in Jack’s life continue to reveal themselves as he shows himself a doting uncle, reading bedtime stories to his young nephew. When Beth confronts him about his isolation, she also tells him that Angela (Janina Gavankar) called her, worried about him. We later learn that he and Angela are still married but separated after a devastating family loss.
Ben Afleck as Jack Cunningham in "The Way Back." © 2020 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
Once a high school basketball star, he’s asked to coach at his alma mater after the current coach suffers a heart attack. His alcohol-fuddled brain comes up with tons of excuses as to why he can’t do this but, surprisingly, he shows up at the gym for practice the next day and gets introduced to the team by assistant coach, Dan (Al Madrigal). Jack’s not impressed by what he sees. The team’s stats are awful and they “couldn’t hit the ocean from the beach.”
The film is permeated with all the colorful language you can imagine but, unlike some films, the swear words serve to show a deeply suffering human being. As Jack works with the players, he finds a new sense of purpose and begins to heal. As he does so, his instances of mouthing off diminish, although they don’t disappear completely. He’s even told by the team’s chaplain, Father Mark (Jeremy Radin), that swearing is against the Catholic school’s code of conduct. An amusing exchange happens during one game when Jack loses his temper, swears and gets a ‘hairy eyeball’ look from Father Mark. “I’m working on it,” Jack responds, reigning in his frustration. “Work harder,” says Father Mark.
A bit disturbing is the film’s depiction of Jack’s seemingly cold-turkey-without-any-kind-of-help cessation of drinking as it seems quite unrealistic. However, the filmmakers do make clear that recovery isn’t a one-and-done matter and Jack needs even more than the respite coaching provides for him to truly find a way back to a full, happy life.
But “The Way Back” isn’t just about Jack. At one point, Coach Dan tells Jack not to underestimate the influence he can have in the lives of kids on the team. He especially helps Brandon (Brandon Wilson) come out of his shell and step up to be the leader that’s been caged inside him. Marcus (Melvin Gregg), always scooting by on natural charisma, learns how to take responsibility for himself and his actions.
Brandon Wilson (center) as Brandon in "The Way Back." © 2020 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
As a sports film, “The Way Back” does nothing to break out of the formula and the sports aspects are highly predictable. Ben Affleck carries the film in the acting category and the kids give believable performances, especially Wilson.
From a faith perspective, viewers may appreciate the Catholic setting in which the film takes place, even though faith doesn’t play a big part in the journey the characters take. What the film does provide, however, is hope that no matter how much suffering life throws at us, we can experience love and redemption if we open ourselves to it.
Thanks to Catholic News Service for permission to re-post this review.