Ben Affleck is less interested in playing Batman nowadays and more interested in roles like fallen small-town hoops hero Jack Cunningham in “The Way Back,” where he’s the only big-name actor. In this well-crafted if familiar film, Affleck – along with piano and string work from Rob Simonsen – sells wordless scenes such as Jack drinking a beer in the shower and saying “f***.” We can tell he’s reflecting on how his life has come to this sad point.
Director Gavin O’Connor and writer Brad Ingelsby hold back a couple of big reasons for Jack’s fall in order to spring some later surprises, but it almost doesn’t matter because Affleck is so good at playing a failure we want to root for. The filmmakers also find fresh, grin-worthy angles into expected outcomes. For instance, Jack rehearses his polite decline of the Bishop Hayes High School coaching offer a half-dozen times while moving beers from fridge to freezer and cracking cold ones. We skip Jack’s acceptance call and cut to his first practice. He’s the coach, but we know how hard it is for him to step onto this titular path.
The basketball scenes are very good, and the coaching strategies believable for the high school level: Jack realizes his under-talented, undersized team’s best bet is a relentless trapping defense. “The Way Back” is set in present day, in an unknown location (California, I think, since that’s where it was filmed), but it dips into an old-school “Hoosiers” vibe.
In my experience, the popularity of high school basketball varies wildly from town to town, but in some small schools it still reigns. Although Bishop Hayes has fallen on hard times – having not made the playoffs since Jack’s playing days in 1994 – this is still a place where athletics has some sway, especially if the team gets good. I dig the gyms, from Bishop Hayes’ clapboard building with pillars at the front of the stands to conference stalwart Memorial’s brightly lit mini-dome.
We get a nice collection of players with distinct personalities: the point guard who is too quiet (Brandon Wilson as Brandon), the natural talent who is too cocky (Melvin Gregg as Marcus), the player who is more interested in the cheerleaders (Will Ropp as Kenny), and so forth. Ingelsby is checking screenwriting boxes, sure, but the casting is excellent, as every kid seems like a genuine small-school hoopster. And the film gets many small moments right, like how coaches are professional when shaking hands as the crowd looks on, but not so much when the opposition is out of earshot.
“The Way Back” eventually reveals two big reasons why Jack has turned to drinking, and those complete his character picture. But through much of the film, it’s enough to know that he’s a good man who is now ruled by alcohol. Helping us to feel good rooting for Jack are loved ones who are frustrated by him: his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins of “The Unicorn”) and his ex-wife Angela (Janina Gavankar).
Math teacher/assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) is a nice sounding board, and a lot of humor comes from the mere presence of team chaplain Mark (Jeremy Radin). Our eyes – and often the camera – seek out the chaplain’s disappointed expression every time Jack swears on the sideline, whether he’s dropping casual adjectives or ripping into a poor referee.
As I got into the spirit of Bishop Hayes’ push for a playoff spot, I was aware that “The Way Back” is following the sports flick formula. But only dimly aware. Affleck creates a Jack Cunningham whose troubles are clichéd yet real, and O’Connor keeps things low-key enough that the story gradually gets under your skin; we’re never bludgeoned by it. In a 2020 with so many problems, it’s oddly refreshing to focus on the small but genuine inspiration that comes from watching one person piece his life back together.