Most people can recall a time in their young lives when someone older inspired them and/or believed in them. Perhaps it was a teacher or a coach or a tutor, etc. who helped them see the potential they had even when they couldn't. There have been numerous films over the years that have explored this theme and it is common to get at least one of these uplifting stories every few years. The Way Back is one such type of film…but with a bit of a twist. Not only does the basketball coach motivate a bunch of teens but he learns (the hard way) to help himself.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck; Argo) was a rising basketball star in the early 1990s who had a full college scholarship to attend Kansas State. However, he turned it down to spite his father and never picked up a basketball again. Twenty plus years later he is a construction worker and an alcoholic who is on the verge of divorce when he receives a call from Bishop High School, his alma mater, asking him to step in and take over the basketball team after the previous head coach had a heart attack.
Jack is reluctant and tries to figure out a way to refuse but ultimately takes the job. Far from the glory days when Jack played, the team has 10 guys and only a few who are good. As can be expected he takes these young men and molds them into a solid, cohesive unit through "tough love". Of Course, the team gets better and starts winning, working their way to the High School playoffs. Meanwhile, Jack's personal world is falling apart. His wife has started seeing someone else and he watches as his friends go through the same devastating situation he once faced. Hitting rock bottom, Jack drives drunk, hits a car, enters the wrong house and ends up in the hospital. While his team fights their way to the top, Jack simply fights to find his "way back".
Affleck has had some terrific roles in the past but this one is one of his best. We watch him suffer through a range of emotions while he struggles with the cards life has handed Jack. He has also spoken about how this role helped him with his own sobriety and I'm sure having personal experience to draw from makes his performance even more powerful. Joining Affleck is a group of talented actors with Janina Gavankar (True Blood) playing Jack's estranged wife, Michaela Watkins (The Backup Plan) as his concerned sister and Al Madrigal (Night School) as the assistant basketball coach. The younger actors who make up the team are good themselves but Melvin Gregg (American Vandal) is the standout amongst the group.
Director Gavin O'Connor (The Accountant) gives the film a slightly gritty feel with more muted color tones and does a great job of making the audience aware of Jack's surroundings, giving a full sense of what makes up his world. He also keeps the pacing on track swapping the story's high points with lower moments, essentially taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions.
While The Way Back is a "by the numbers", heartwarming, inspirational film and doesn't really offer anything new in terms of plot, Affleck's performance brings it up a notch. It is clear from this movie and The Accountant that he and O'Connor make a great team. It makes one wonder what they will bring next to audiences.
While being "inspiring", don't be fooled that this is a "kids' movie". There are many deep and dark moments with plenty of cursing thrown in as well. The Way Back isn't a "feel-good" movie, but after watching it, you feel pretty good.