The Way Back is about an alcoholic construction worker who gets another chance at making an impact in high school basketball when he’s asked to become the head coach of a failing basketball team at the high school he attended. The trailer makes it easy to assume you’re about to watch yet another sports drama about alcoholism and coaching a basketball team that needs help. But The Way Back is about more than that. It’s about men’s mental health and the silent struggle many men deal with after loss, failure or regret. It’s an emotional story that once again showcases what a great actor Ben Affleck has become.
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is an alcoholic whose been separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for over a year. He lives by himself and when not working at his construction job, he’s getting drunk at his favorite bar. His family worries about his well being given his circumstances and life just seems to be plodding along for him. That is, until he’s asked to coach his old high school’s basketball where he was once a star player with a bright future in the sport.
Reluctant at first, Jack accepts the role of head coach and quickly rediscovers his passion for the game as he does his best to whip the losing basketball team into a cohesive force to be reckoned with. But like his relationship with alcohol, his commitment to the game and his athletes is only a distraction from the ongoing suffering and anger he’s been trying to dull since experiencing a terrible tragedy in his life. As he continues to bottle up his feelings and turn to the bottle when life gets tough, he risks losing even more than what he’s already lost.
Ben Affleck delivers a powerful performance as Jack Cunningham, a man full of regrets, who only knows how to deal with his suffering through drinking. Unable to deal with the multiple negative hands life has dealt him, he constantly tries to numb his pain through substance abuse. He drinks at work, after work, while driving, in the shower, at the bar – all the time. His downward spiral is interrupted when he finds a positive purpose in his life by being given an opportunity to help a group of young basketball players improve their game and have a shot at being champions.
But as he commits himself to the sport and becomes a better person by mentoring and helping these eager young men, he must learn that he needs to face his problems instead of ignoring, repressing or running away from them. Affleck is astounding as he conveys this tortured soul who isn’t a bad person, but ends up doing the wrong things because of his drinking problem.
Director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant, Jane Got A Gun) has made a powerful movie that on the surface appears to be about the destructive nature of alcoholism and how finding positivity in your life can help get you out of the darkness you find yourself in. This movie is much more than that. Yes, it shows how bad excessive alcohol consumption can ruin your life. Yes, it shows the positive impact being a mentor and teacher can have on you and those around you. But what it really does is shed light on the issue of male suffering and how many “strong”, “tough” men lack the coping mechanisms to deal with serious life problems on their own.
There is a reason why male suicide rates are higher than female suicide rates and movies like The Way Back showcase how vulnerable men can be, yet feel that they cannot or should not communicate this suffering because the societal expectation – in their eyes at least – is that they are the protectors and providers of their families.
The Way Back is a strong drama that runs a bit long and at times over does scenes of Ben Affleck knocking back drinks (we get it, he’s an alcoholic). There are moments where I felt the story could have pushed the conflict a little more, however I think the filmmakers really wanted to focus more on the struggles of Jack Cunningham instead of the struggles of other characters he interacts with. Despite these minor issues, I really enjoyed and appreciated this film and its messaging, and with strong direction and solid acting across the board – especially from Affleck – this earns an easy recommendation even if you, like myself, aren’t interested in basketball.