Movie Review – The Way Back (2020)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Often times, films will be accused of trying to be two movies in one. Sometimes, that can work. Sometimes, it can’t. Director Gavin O’Connor’s latest is two movies in one. It’s a sports film and it’s an alcoholism film. It makes sense being that the alcoholic in question is a basketball coach, so it’d be pretty silly not to have sports present in the narrative, but this film goes beyond having sports as a presence in the narrative. This film wants legitimately to be a sports flick, falling into all the usual clichés therein. O’Connor has experience doing sports films. He directed the critically-acclaimed Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), so he knows how to do them and do them well. Warrior did address the issue of alcoholism, but O’Connor goes full tilt here, diving deeper into it.
Ben Affleck (Justice League and Gone Girl) stars as Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who is recently divorced. Immediately after getting off work, he starts drinking. It doesn’t take long to see that he sneaks alcohol onto the job site and is perhaps a bit drunk while he’s at work. Given that he works with or around heavy machinery or in a somewhat dangerous environment, it’s a surprise how he hasn’t hurt himself or someone else. He lives a somewhat lonely life, meaning he goes home to an empty home, somewhere in southern California. He does go to see his family for Thanksgiving, but his sister worries about him since his divorce but why she’s so worried isn’t made clear at first.
One day, the head of Bishop Hayes, the Catholic high school where Jack attended, calls. The head of the school is a priest named Father Divine who remembers when Jack was a star basketball player in the 90’s. Father Divine says that the basketball team has not done well in the 20-plus years since Jack left. Father Divine also says that he wants Jack to work at the school as the head coach for the men’s basketball team. Jack is reluctant at first, but he clearly has respect for the priest and the school, as well as feels that his sister’s worry might be warranted, so he needs purpose that isn’t just him getting drunk.
Al Madrigal (I’m Dying Up Here and About a Boy) co-stars as Dan, a math teacher at Bishop Hayes who is the assistant basketball coach. When Jack arrives, Dan is the one who shows Jack the ropes and introduces him to the current roster of student-athletes on the team. He doesn’t inject himself too much. He lets Jack coach the team the way that he wants to coach, which eventually rises to a very aggressive form, which includes yelling but also cursing. Dan doesn’t perhaps mind the yelling, except when he gets physical or in the face of the referees, but he does object to the cursing because he feels it’s not Christian and it sets not a good example for the boys on the team.
Dan also objects when he catches onto the fact that Jack’s drinking is becoming a problem that is bleeding into his coaching job. It’s not clear if Dan knows the root cause of Jack’s depression, which leads him to get drunk. Jack seemingly has some control over his drinking. Yet, Jack experiences something new, which triggers another bout of depression, pushing him to get really wasted, resulting in an incident that can’t be ignored.
Janina Gavankar (The Morning Show and True Blood) plays Angela, the ex-wife of Jack. She’s divorced from him, but she still seems friendly with him and his family, particularly his sister. Her separation from him doesn’t seem to be because he cheated or because his alcoholism became an issue. In fact, his alcoholism possibly formed in the wake of their separation. She still cares for him. She will go with him to friends’ parties as a couple. The incident that broke them up was obviously a trauma that they couldn’t overcome to keep their mutual romantic interests aligned, but, there isn’t blame on either’s part about it.
Without spoiling the plot and what’s revealed as the incident that broke up Jack and Angela, the alcoholism stuff is pretty pedestrian. If anything, it simply stands as an acting vehicle for Affleck. It also stands as a kind of catharsis, given what’s happened in Affleck’s personal life. Affleck has had a history of addiction and mental illness in his family, specifically alcoholism. He’s experienced it since childhood. It was reported in 2017 that he was in rehab for alcoholism and since then he’s reportedly relapsed. This film is perfect for him or he is perfect for this role, as it echoes a bit of that, and so Affleck can bring genuine authenticity to the performance.
Yet, the film wouldn’t be as compelling if not for the sports aspect to it. We follow Jack as he coaches the team, which was in the dumps, and he leads them toward victory. Along the way, we get to know several, key members of that team. Most of whom are young African-American men like Brandon Wilson who plays Brandon, the team’s best player, but his father is opposed to him pursuing basketball because he knows that it’s not a sure-thing and is more likely not to lead to anything for his future. The screenplay by O’Connor and Brad Ingelsby doesn’t drill into the lives of the boys too much and draws the importance of the game to them, but O’Connor’s direction and the editing of the sequences are thrilling enough to keep the film engaging.
Rated R for language, including sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.