Saturday, March 7, 2020


The Way Back is a character study in the structure of a sport’s movie. It's the kind of movie we say they don't make anymore, a terrific work of formula and feeling, and about recognizable people with real problems. In its attentive way, attuned to the addiction suffered by its main character, the film doubles up on underdogs. We find a man drawn to the beer bottle to drown out disappointments, purposefully narrowing his life to his hard work on a construction crew and his drunken nights passing out alone. Years before, he used to be a high school basketball star, and so when his old school calls him to take over as head coach of a team in the midst of a decades long losing streak — the old coach had a heart attack and has to withdraw midseason — he reluctantly agrees. It sets up an easy Hollywood arc, with a ragtag group of underperforming athletes and a middle-aged man gripped by regret and alcoholism have to help each other find a way forward, growing together and teaching each other. But though the film takes on that shape, through the hard-won victories on and off the court, it’s far more interested in the people involved. Though it hardly lacks for basketball action and locker room pep talks and heart to hearts with troubled youths, and builds up the typical compelling head of steam as rivals look down on them and the playoffs loom, the movie holds the coach in focus at the key moment, the scoreboard blurred in the background. In fact, though the ending is rousing and emotionally satisfying, as I sit here typing these words I can’t even remember if we hear the final score. Director Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to the genre, what with his great 2004 based-on-a-true-hockey-game Miracle and fine 2011 brother-versus-brother boxing movie Warrior. Here he and his team bring solid meat-and-potatoes studio craftsmanship to every polished moment of Brad Ingelsby’s sturdy screenplay. And he services the expected beats by underplaying them — scores revealed in a melancholy freeze frame of on-screen text, or a deft cut away from a reaction — while building up an involving emotional experience.

It helps that Ben Affleck, delivering one of his finest performances, is in the lead. He brings sad eyes to the role, unspoken depression burbling under his closeups. There’s a scene where he sits in his truck in the parking lot of a bar, and we can tell he’s debating whether or not to go in based solely on the expression on his face. It’s neither overplayed nor telegraphed; he’s simply being, letting the conflict play out naturally, subtly, a shift of weight, a tipping of emphasis, a silence, a pause. He feels real. So, too, is his physicality, carrying with it the full burden of his own star persona — here’s the champion who was, the box office draw and Oscar winner whose megawatt celebrity has been dimmed through the vagaries of gossip headlines and various personal problems playing out in public. We can see in his role the powerhouse this new coach once was, the sturdy confidence of his frame balancing on unsteady feet, tough and talented, but clearly struggling. When he steps back on the court, he regains some of his command. If only he can stay on the wagon long enough to take similar charge of his life. The cast around him is evocative, painted in broad strokes, enough to get the picture. There’s a kind assistant coach (Al Madrigal), a worried sister (Michaela Watkins), a tentative ex-wife (Janina Gavankar). As painful moments of backstory are revealed, it’s clear the man’s profound pain will not be taken away by drinking another shot at the bar nor by watching his players take a winning shot on the court. There are no simple answers here. No one — not him, not his players, not his family, not his community — is transformed overnight. But they can be set on the right path. It’s not for nothing that his day job finds him helping construct a new highway overpass. It’s slow going, piece by piece. But maybe, if all goes well, in the end, there’ll be a new way back.

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