Over the past few years, Ben Affleck has seemingly been defined not so much by his professional output but by a single paparazzi photo from 2018. In it, he’s standing on an overcast beach with a towel wrapped around his stomach as he gives a deep stare into the surf. The combination of his noticeably huskier physique, his Ed Hardy phoenix of a back tattoo, and his expression of utter despondence turned him into an instant meme. No matter that it was relatively public knowledge he was on some serious skids, having recently separated from wife Jennifer Garner and serious grapplings with alcoholism. “Sadfleck,” a tragicomic avatar of soured masculinity, was born.
The raw and redemptive tale of a broken soul who starts piecing himself back together when he’s hired to coach his old high school basketball team undoubtedly sounds like a movie that you’ve already seen a hundred times because — in broad strokes — it is. But director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby head-fake expectations in a number of significant ways, avoiding the easy layups endemic to the sports genre in favor of a story that finds more drama in running drills than it does in playing the big game. In The Way Back, Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a man not so far removed from this warp-mirror image of himself. He’s a high-functioning alcoholic who’s gotten the hang of concealing his protective shell of perpetual tipsiness. Between his morning shower beer, his discreet plastic-cup commute beer, several on-the-job beers at a construction site, and his nightly daze at the neighborhood watering hole, he can keep himself sufficiently sedated from one day to the next. He’s certainly circling the drain, and there’s a sense of sharp darkness underlying Jack’s addiction, but understanding the reasons for one’s self-destructive behavior can fool people into thinking they have it under control. A defensive early scene between Jack and his sister (Michaela Watkins) makes it all too clear that he’s hurting too much to let anyone even acknowledge his pain. Affleck isn’t suave here; performing drunkenness with conviction and specificity, Affleck takes whatever charm Jack has and suffocates it under layers of scar tissue. He’s being driven by his damage, and ready to snap at anyone who forces him to look in the rear-view mirror.
Jack undoubtedly needs the kind of help he doesn’t know how to ask for, and that’s when someone unexpectedly puts their faith in him. And that faith comes from Father Edward Devine (John Aylward) — the long-time principal of Bishop Hayes High School, where Jack went and was a star basketball player — who asks Jack to take over the job as the head basketball coach, in which Jack responds with an unsure. But after twenty-four beers and a dark night of the soul, Jack acquiesces. From there, each slam-dunk story beat follows another: the kids on the team are a bunch of slackers and showoffs who don’t know how to play together, and each player is distinguished by his own defining trait (their dialogue can as well be quiet corny, often coming off like middle-age people trying to write and sound “like the youth”). Jack is saddled with the school’s straitlaced algebra teacher as his assistant coach (Al Madrigal), and the friction between their respective styles of coaching has a low-key charm throughout. But it doesn’t help that the team sucks, but, as you might expect, Jack soon puts them into shape, swearing at them about toughness through the process.
But The Way Back doesn’t get too caught up in the highs and lows of a miracle season. With Affleck’s bone-deep commitment, there’s never a sense that Jack is just a few wins away from getting back on his feet. This is the rare sports drama that respects the gravity of what people are playing for, and the limits of how far a game can take them. In other words, it can be pretty sad, and leaves you clinging for whatever specks of light you can find along the way. O’Connor’s direction mutes even the most exciting basketball plays until you recognize how the things these kids do on the court is going to single-handedly fix what haunts their coach away from it. There’s no victory that can repair Jack’s relationship with his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar, killing it in a difficult role), or a rebound that can heal the hole in his heart. And while his players are likeable and easy to root for, Ingelsby’s screenplay never forgets that their coach has more at stake. A poor performance or losing a game might cost these players a scholarship, but losing this job might cost Jack his life. This is a movie of painful details — from Jack’s finger taps on a beer can before popping it open to his method of loading each successive beer into the freezer then replacing it with the next on deck. A film that eschews the expected melodrama in favor of more everyday triumphs and setbacks (often cutting the basketball games short in order to get back to a bar), continually focusing on the raw specifics.
And as The Way Back progresses, following its steady formula beat-by-beat for its first two acts, its final comes with a course correct; as the movie careens past its expected destination and into a gracefully subdued final act that reaffirms the underlying truthfulness of this story. So little of what matters in life happens between the buzzers. People are always in progress — straining for what they’ve left behind while pushing towards some imagined future — but time only moves in one direction, and the road to recovery has to point forward if it leads anywhere at all. Whatever strides Jack makes can only be measured in millimeters, but Affleck ensures that he earns every step. The is a movie that makes a compelling argument for movie stardom as a potent force of audience association and identification. We invest, and maybe even shed some eye-water, because it’s Ben Affleck up there, a living human being whom we’ve cultivated a relationship over two-plus decades onscreen. In The Way Back we watch him battle and work through his own demons in a metatextual feast, witnessing the resonation through each sip, through each empty can. O’Connor leaves Affleck high above the ocean, on a basketball court overlooking an idyllic shore. In one shot, we can see just how high he’s risen since that one day at the beach. Taking a corrective turn with its trite material, The Way Back finds a career-best Ben Affleck on a deeply sobering, elegantly somber, and emotionally honest journey of moving recovery.