The Way Back: A Redemption Story that Gets the Little Things Right
If you’ve seen the trailer for The Way Back, and especially if you’ve seen one of Gavin O’Connor’s prior sports dramas (Miracle, Warrior), you probably know exactly how his new film will go. That’s not a bad thing. “The little things add up,” alcoholic basketball coach Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) repeatedly tells his high school players, and the mantra holds true for O’Connor’s efforts, as he sprinkles Cunningham’s redemption story with countless important, idiosyncratic, small moments. O’Connor and Affleck work together to craft a simple story of anger and grief and alcoholism, deftly steering around melodrama and easy catharsis in a way that makes it easy to forgive the repeated underdog sports movie clichés. Jack Cunningham is a former high school basketball star and a present-day alcoholic. When his alma mater’s coach has a heart attack, he’s invited back to coach a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in the quarter century since he graduated. It’s not a new story, but this is one case where one could be forgiven for ignoring the forest in favor the trees: O’Connor invests heavily in the daily rhythms of the long, winding road to recovery. One early scene encompasses what The Way Back does well. After taking the night to sleep on his decision, Cunningham cracks open a beer and rehearses his rejection call to the head of Bishop Hayes High School. One becomes two becomes five, and while Cunningham may be following a routine, Affleck’s performance is the opposite of tedious, imbuing the scene with incredible specificity and vulnerability. The way he twists his wrist to tap his thumb against the top of a can before opening it. The wisdom of the drunk in keeping one can in the freezer, sliding it out, replacing it with one from the fridge, preparing for the long night to come. The scene runs quickly from the formulaic comedy of someone rehearsing a phone call to the depressing reality of a man who has lost control – the perfect encapsulation of knowing or being an alcoholic. These small moments are the best parts of The Way Back. Affleck inhabits helpless anger, and desperation seems to roll off him in waves, especially in scenes with his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar). The film indulges only once or twice in the sort of brooding, non-responsive rage that’s so characteristic of male-focused stories of grief (Manchester by the Sea, for example), instead opting for a braver vulnerability, a man who alternates between wanting to get better and not seeing the point. O’Connor mostly refuses to glamorize the journey, opting for muted colors, a subdued but melancholic score, and finding beauty in intimate images, eschewing the sprawl. Unlike its predecessor, Warrior, The Way Back lacks a sense of place, anchoring itself in the internal rather than the external. The basketball team’s journey is more than slightly improbable, but it’s easy to forget that unlike Miracle, the “sports” part of “sports drama” is secondary here. O’Connor wisely shows more of each game as the team becomes a larger part of Cunningham’s life, and as always he’s a master director of sports action – and that’s just about all you can ask for of the on-the-court moments. The script makes cursory efforts to expand and invest in the supporting characters, especially star player Brandon (Brandon Wilson), but ultimately it shares some of the same selfishness as its main character: the story about an alcoholic is just as blindly self-centered as the alcoholic himself. Details about Cunningham’s past emerge, but by giving them little screen time, O’Connor keeps the focus on the road to recovery. In that sense, his use of basketball as a metaphor becomes perfectly clear. “We’re not going to make it all back in one possession,” Cunningham tells his team, spurring them to come back from a large deficit. Little by little. Bit by bit. Slow and steady. Just like Cunningham and his basketball team, The Way Back gets the little things right. And that makes a big difference.