“The Way Back” could have been as by the numbers as its title, a name that telegraphs a need to be redeemed, to rebound from adversity. But it isn’t.
Muscularly directed by Gavin O’Connor, whose facility with emotional dramas with sports connections goes as far back as 2004’s “Miracle,” “The Way Back” is elevated and transformed by one of Ben Affleck’s strongest and most convincing performances.
O’Connor and Affleck, who’ve successfully worked together before in the eccentrically entertaining “The Accountant,” here take on a much more serious story of a former star athlete now separated from his wife and drinking way too much.
Affleck has had his own very public bouts with alcoholism and he’s quite intentionally attempted to use that experience to, in his own words, “access these deeply private aspects of myself” to inform his performance, and he’s strikingly succeeded.
It’s not just that, at age 47, Affleck’s history is visible on his face, it’s that he has the ability to convey through his acting the deep pain his drinking has caused him as well as the savage, seething anger he feels about the way his life has gone.
It’s also a tribute to Affleck, the filmmakers and his well-chosen fellow actors (Wendy O’Brien did the casting) that though he’s the film’s only boldface name, “The Way Back” has not been allowed to turn into a star vehicle but instead functions as a smooth ensemble.
It is the conceit of Brad Inglesby’s carefully constructed script that we spend a considerable amount of time with Jack Cunningham, Affleck’s character, before we find out the reasons for the alcohol dependency we see almost from the first frames.
Introduced as a classic hard hat construction worker, San Pedro resident Cunningham is the kind of blue collar guy who always has a can of Coors at the ready, even when he’s in the shower.
More than that, most evenings find him at Harold’s Place, a non-gentrified dive bar whose other patrons are adept at bringing him home when he becomes falling down drunk, which is often.
Prone to snapping at his well-meaning sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) when she passes on a mild message from his estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), Jack is a train wreck, for sure, but there is something about the way Affleck has thrown himself into the role, how much it means to him, that keeps us curious to know more.
Then, out of the blue, Jack gets a call from his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School. The school’s basketball coach has had a heart attack and a replacement to finish out the season is needed. Would Jack be interested?
As it turns out, Jack was a spectacular basketball player in his youth, the CIF Player of the Year two years running, before (for reasons we eventually learn) flaming out in college. Too embarrassed to think about the alcoholism that should mandate his refusal, he says yes.
High school basketball is a key element in “The Way Back’s” plot, and echoes of “Hoosiers” and other films about unlikely coaches are inevitable.
Not surprisingly, as assistant coach Dan Espinosa (Al Madrigal) tells Jack, Bishop Hayes’ squad is a ragtag bunch of middling-at-best players who needle each other and have never even heard of team spirit.
Among the individuals we get to know are Marcus (Melvin Gregg), whose self-esteem outpaces his game, Brandon (Brandon Wilson), talented but lacking in confidence, and Kenny (Will Ropp), who focuses on his social life more than his teammates.
At first, the Hayes Tigers do not necessarily thrive under Jack’s uncertain leadership, but eventually the coach catches fire and the team starts to pay attention.
Giving this kind of brief description of the familiar sports aspects of “The Way Back” makes the film sound more standard than it in fact plays, as director O’Connor and his team, aware of the pitfalls, take steps to give us more than we expect.
And once the reasons for Jack’s continued drinking are revealed, the narrative building blocks are added to the story line’s structure brick by convincing brick.
Holding the edifice together from top to bottom is Affleck, who, O’Connor told 34th Street Magazine, got out of his most recent stint of detox “the day before we started shooting. So we had a very raw, vulnerable guy showing up for our first day of shooting.” It made a difference.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release