The Way Back review – a smart script that doesn’t turn the ball over

By Marc Miller
Published: March 9, 2020 (Last updated: January 4, 2024)
The Way Back review - a smart script that doesn't turn the ball over


Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back has a smart script that doesn’t turn over the crucial sports moment or Ben Affleck’s career-best performance.

There are so many things that could have gone wrong in Gavin O’Connor’s latest sports film, The Way Back. He could have fallen victim to almost every cliché in the genre or the studio could have toned down the protagonist’s substance abuse and had the team rally around him that would wrap up the film in a smarmy, melodramatic bliss. Hell, I’m sure they tried to sign an up-and-coming comedian to play the assistant coach to add some zany comic relief. Not so fast, considering O’Connor cut his teeth in such sports classics as Miracle and, in my opinion, the best sports film of the decade, Warrior, he knows how to get the ball in the right player’s hands. That’s where Brad Ingelsby comes in, who wrote a smart script that doesn’t turn over the ball, so to speak, when it comes time for that crucial sports moment.

Giving a career-best performance, Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham in The Way Back, a man we see is in the middle of a serious alcoholism crisis. He is separated from his wife, Angela (Blindspotting’s Janina Gavankar), is stuck in a run-down top floor house apartment, and is working a dead-end construction job that gives him just enough to wash it down his throat every night. Jack’s never found a dive bar he can’t close or a 12-pack he can’t finish nightly. His sister, Beth (The Unicorn’s Michaela Watkins) is worried he has no direction and is going to drink himself to death. Then, things start to turn around for him when he is offered a position as the head coach of the high school basketball team at his alma mater. The program has hit hard times, not making the playoffs since Jack was a star player there.

Many will assume The Way Back is based on an incredible true story, but it is actually a work of fiction; the film is so remarkably low key in almost everything it does, and you can see why many would make that mistake. Similar fictional scripts would have been over the top, winning a national title that doesn’t exist by not being burdened with those pesky facts for the truth. The credit for that goes to American Woman scribe Brad Ingelsby, who wrote a smart script that doesn’t cut corners, that takes issues of substance abuse at the workplace and at home seriously. Instead of having a character word vomit their entire back story in the first couple of scenes, Ingelsby’s strategically well-placed, timely reveals feel more like television’s Friday Night Lights in the way it uses basketball as a backdrop to deal with real-life issues. The script underplays the comic relief, but when it does, Jeremy Radin’s Father Whelan had me smiling by trying to keep the school’s moral code intact. Even Al Madrigal, who usually plays off-the-wall comedy types, is very good here, really, as the film’s righteous center, and his character doesn’t have a false note.

Then there is the matter of Ben Affleck. The star actor has had a well-documented substance abuse problem of his own and gives a career performance in The Way Back. There wasn’t a moment I didn’t buy him as a bloated, puffy drunk, who is in a constant self-destructive mode and ready to hit rock bottom at any moment. Even his take on a tough-as-nails basketball coach is gripping and has such a sharp bark that it would make Bobby Knight take a step back. However, by the end of the film, you watch Affleck, in a scene of great tenderness, tell someone the source of his constant inner torture. The visual is a moving one, redeeming his character, and unlike anything he has ever done.

The Way Back, for all the praise above, isn’t a perfect film. It does have some sports clichés you will see in any movie within the genre. Furthermore, a pet peeve of mine here and in many films makes it seem easy to be placed in a nice rehab facility to dry out without thinking of the extreme financial consequences (a standard program alone can cost $15,000 to $27,000). O’Connor, though, has created an escapist picture with a lot to say on substance abuse, mental health, and a grounded integrity that I couldn’t help but admire.

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