“The Way Back” Movie Review


     You don’t have to convince me to watch a film like Gavin O’Connor’s “The Way Back”, given  the story revolves around a high school basketball team and a coach looking for redemption, but also because I made a documentary film about a a small high school team very much like the one in this film just a few years ago, 2017’s “The Basketball Family”.  And while the similarities ensure O’Connor’s film will peak the interest of any basketball fan, the story here delves further into the territory of movies like “Manchester by the Sea” than it does basketball classics like “Hoosiers” or “Coach Carter”.

     “The Way Back” tells the story of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), an early 90s high school basketball legend who never pursued the game after graduating, choosing instead to make decisions that would shy away from hoops and take him in other directions.  When we first meet Jack, he’s leaving after a day of work at a construction site and heads to a local bar where he drinks with friends.  At first, none of this seems unusual, that is until we see him drinking in the shower, drinking at home, drinking at the bar, and drinking on the job.  He obviously has a problem, but why?

     A Thanksgiving gathering at his mother’s house starts to shed light on his situation.  He is recently separated and has essentially isolated himself from everyone he knows.  It’s the alcohol that takes the edge off, but only temporarily, meaning he’s in a constant battle to somehow make the pain and burden of life’s pitfalls leave him, if only for a night.  In the middle of all this, he gets a phone call from his high school alma mater.  Their basketball coach has fallen ill and they want Jack to consider coaching the team.  And it is immediately disclosed the school has not qualified for the playoffs since Jack’s glory days, meaning a difficult road ahead should he accept the job.

     Working from a script by O’Connor and Brad Ingelsby, the story drops the would be coach directly into a practice where he discovers the talent level and discipline are significantly below the standards he would expect.  Many of the cliched basketball team subplots begin to play out, where we see a group who underperforms both on the court and off.  But Jack takes the job and instantly injects the team with energy and a higher level of fight in games with his colorful take on coaching and motivating.  All of this, of course, to the dismay of the school staff given this is a Catholic school who plays other religiously oriented high school programs.  But his knowledge of the game is clear, and the kids seem to instantly buy in, though there are plenty of rough patches along the way.

     One of the most common threads in stories like this will feature some level of character development amongst the players where they play a central role in both the team’s development, as well as their own.  You see it in “Hoosiers” and you really see it in “Coach Carter” where many of the players on the team are as important to the overall plot as the coach is.  That isn’t the case here, as the kids tend to stay in the backdrop with O’Connor preferring to have them orbit Jack’s story, as this isn’t really about his coaching job, nor is it about winning basketball games.  “The Way Back” instead brings us closer to a man who has consistently been knocked down in his life and struggles to continually find ways to get back up.  We learn of his rocky relationship with his father, and we are given a front and center look at the relationship he has with his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), but there is also more which makes Jack an incredibly complex character.  

     All of this makes the narrative unconventional in terms of a sports film.  One of the kids, Brandon (Brandon Wilson), of whom Jack believes is the team’s best player, remains as the only one who the film explores beyond the basketball court, with a story that resonates with Jack given the issues he experienced with his own father.  It doesn’t help things that the kid is void of any kind of personality and the scenes dedicated to the study of his character seem forced, rather than authentic.  As if to manufacture a highlight moment in the third act, rather than really have the audience understand what’s going on in this kid’s head.  We do, however, begin to understand what is happening with the coach and why he can’t seem to put down the bottle.  It’s the kind of tragedy nobody could endure without turning the wrong way in life and thus finding themselves in a hole too deep to get out of.  

     The games themselves are expertly shot and executed in a manner that brought me right back to the 2015-2016 Calvary Chapel Lions basketball season, which is the Las Vegas team I followed in my film.  The “Warrior” director nails the small school vibe, and particularly the religious undercurrent that follows these kids on the court and in the locker room.  But the film uses most of this as a setting to the ongoing struggles of a man whose downward spiral seems impossible to stop.  GRADE: B

“The Basketball Family” is available to watch for free on Vimeo.