“Let’s do all the little things right,” Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham often yells at the basketball team he’s just started coaching. “That shit adds up.” The same is true of Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, a film that knows just how to nail all its little things, which when put together, makes for a surprisingly strong story of redemption that works not only for its characters, but for Affleck himself.
Cunningham was once a high school basketball star, leading his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School, to their only state championship. But the last twenty-five years haven’t been easy on Cunningham. He spends his nights drinking at his local bar, before getting dragged home, then wakes up to go to his construction job, coffee tumbler full of vodka. Cunningham’s life has become a cyclical pattern of self-destruction, self-loathing, and alcoholism. When Bishop Hayes needs a new coach for their failing basketball team, Father Edward Devine (John Aylward) considers the last person who made the team shine. Begrudgingly, Cunningham takes the position and starts to find a purpose outside drinking and rekindles a love for something more in his life.
While on paper, this sounds like the standard uplifting sports tale, O’Connor, who also co-wrote The Way Back with Out of the Furnace’s Brad Ingelsby, couldn’t care less about basketball, other than as a tool in Cunningham’s path to improvement. O’Connor builds up the anticipation for Bishop Hayes first game under Cunningham’s guidance, only to cut away to the score, never showing a second of the match.
With films like Miracle and especially Warrior, O’Connor knows that the human aspect of these sports stories is far more important than the winners or losers. To even call this a sports film feels like a mistake. What’s far more important is Cunningham’s journey and The Way Back works far better as a recovery drama than as the sports film this is marketed as.
Affleck himself has had problems with alcoholism (Affleck started shooting The Way Back soon after leaving rehab), and his experiences with substance abuse are acute in every scene. This is easily one of Affleck’s finest performances because there’s a brutal honesty in the defeated way he carries himself. Even before much is known of Cunningham’s back story, we can see there’s something deeply hurting him, especially in the way he tries to put on a brave face for those around him, only for his hangdog expression to reappear immediately whenever the other person looks away. Additional detail about his life is earth-shattering and hearing of his failed marriage or his father’s lack of care for his son help explain why Cunningham drinks every night until he can’t stand up on his own.
But The Way Back works so well as a recovery drama because it’s playing off the audience expectations for sports films. O’Connor doesn’t oversimplify Cunningham’s problem by hinting that caring for basketball and others might makes his drinking problem just go away. Cunningham’s choices have consequences, and while we might expect that from a film about addiction, we expect that an apology or a winning game can solve any problem in a sports story. By mixing the two types of film, O’Connor packs Cunningham’s choices and the stakes in his life with an unanticipated amount of weight.
The Way Back does the little and big things right, playing against audience’s genre expectations to craft an honest and complicated look at addiction and provides a much needed career reset for Affleck in one of his best performances in years.