The Way Back

 

                Most sports movies tend to be formulaic, and follow a familiar script:  after overcoming obstacles, triumph in the end.  Hoist the championship trophy.  Everybody’s happy.

                “The Way Back” isn’t so predictable.  Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball phenom who walked away from the game, and hasn’t been heard from since.

                We see him sitting by himself on the high-rise construction site, eating lunch and drinking from his thermos.  Then we find out his thermos is “spiked.”  When he gets home, he either hangs out at his neighborhood bar, and drinks so much the bartender has to help him get back to his apartment, or else he just sits on his living room couch and gets wasted all by himself.  The only family in his life seems to be his sister, her husband, and their two kids, whom he sees on special occasions like birthday parties.  There doesn’t seem to be anyone else.

                When he gets the phone call from the old priest at his Catholic high school, he’s determined not to agree to coach the boys’ basketball team.  They’re terrible, and haven’t contended for years.  He tells himself he’s too busy (which even he realizes is self-deluding).  When Jack steps back on the basketball court, we almost expect instant success.

                But no recovery is easy.  The team continues to play terribly, until Jack’s court knowledge starts to kick in.  He realizes he has a smallish team, but with work it could be converted into a full-press, physically active kind of team, except that’s going to take a lot of work, and sustained commitment from the players.  Some of them don’t buy in right away.  The captain is demoted, another player is bounced off for being late, and they all do extra conditioning.  When they start seeing some results from the changes, they start believing in themselves, and now it’s starting to be fun.

                But Jack is still carrying around his anger, which manifests itself in cussing at the refs.  The priest who’s the team chaplain chastises him for his language, saying that the whole school has a behavior mandate, but Jack is slow to change his ways.  He’s still drinking all the time, and the assistant coach (the math teacher) smells the alcohol on him, even during practice.  Jack can hardly believe the consequences.

                But that’s not his only emotional swing.  We find out there’s an estranged wife, and a brutal family situation that adds to his personal pain.  Jack seems to be making some progress, but then relapses.  We become as frustrated with him as he is of himself.

                No, we’re not going to indulge in hoisting the championship trophy, with postscripts about how the star kids got scholarships to prestigious universities.  But maybe we’ll be satisfied with making some progress, and not expecting too much too soon.  Yes, one step at a time.  Because that’s more like real life.  And Ben Affleck makes it real.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association