There’s something to be said about the popularity of sports movies, a genre that has made its name with heartwarming tales of misfits working together towards miraculous wins. Most sports films leave the audience with a sense of satisfaction. You know the story: The wise mentor coaxes talent out of an underdog team of misfits and ultimately leads them to victory. There’s a formula to these films, and it works every time: “Remember the Titans,” “A League of Their Own,” “Hoosiers,” “Field of Dreams” and “Rocky,” to name a few, are crowd-pleasers even in their predictability.
When I entered the theater to see “The Way Back,” I incorrectly assumed that it would be a typical sports movie. To be fair, there are a number of classic sports movie elements present throughout: a struggling misfit basketball team, montages that show their improvement and slow motion action shots. Director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”) is a sports movie veteran, and he knows how to play the genre well. But what sets “The Way Back” apart is its focus beyond basketball and into the deep humanity of addiction, grief and recovery.
This exploration of human resilience is centered around Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck, “Gone Girl”), a construction worker who is offered a job as the head coach of the Bishop Hayes High School’s basketball team. In high school, Jack was Bishop Hayes’s star player, leading his team to victory and multiple championships. Now, he’s an alcoholic who spends nights getting so drunk that he has to be carried home from the bar.
His coaching doesn’t follow the typical sports movie format. Jack is not a wise mentor or a steady rock for his struggling team to latch onto. He’s volatile and foul-mouthed, with a tendency to yell at referees and push people too far. His life is unstable, but he drinks with rhythmic ease. Still, Jack’s ties to the team are essential to its success; as the team starts winning games, his life starts to stabilize, his moods become more sedated and his drinking is less destructive. However, just because sports can temporarily improve life does not mean that they can fix it entirely. While most sports movies avoid this truth entirely, this is a fact that “The Way Back” openly acknowledges.
The ten Bishop Hayes Varsity players have different personalities, but are united by their love for the game. At first, Jack seems embarrassed by his team, embarrassed by their pregame dancing ritual and the fact that they keep losing games. But as time passes, he clearly starts to see himself in these kids. Whether he’s encouraging shy but talented point guard Brandon (Brandon Wilson, “Little Monk”) to step into a leadership position, or hypocritically chastising center Marcus (Melvin Gregg, “American Vandal”) for his vulgar language, he tries to help them forge a positive path to their future. He inspires his players with mantras and mentalities, asking his team the most important question after every game, win or lose: “What did we learn about ourselves last night?” Like most sports movies, you become quickly attached to the team and their success. You wince when the opposing team dunks savagely on an unprepared center. You cheer when one of the players sinks a three-point shot that swishes through the net with a satisfying whoosh. These players are not just a group of high school kids in blue jerseys — they’re your team now.
All the while, there is a slow reveal of details about Jack’s past, giving us a gradual understanding of the full picture. Jack’s struggle and hidden motivations are so engrossing that at times you almost forget that this is a movie about basketball — a feat that can be credited to Affleck’s performance. His execution is captivating, in his trembling fingers or the subtle slurring of his words when he is drunk. Affleck himself has had numerous public struggles with addiction and mental health in previous years, and has cited this project as a kind of therapy for him. Affleck is fully committed to the role, and this passion gives Jack a thrilling spark in a film full of muted colors and heavy themes.
Over the course of his season with Bishop Hayes, Jack gives the team a lot of advice, good and bad. At one of the first games, Jack sends the wrong message, encouraging his team to play dirty. By the end, he’s encouraging them in a different way, creating mantras about working together as a true team and playing with a chip on your shoulder. Watching his messages change is gratifying, even if it’s predictable. “All the little things add up,” he starts to tell his team. Rather than focus on the big things you can’t change, try to fix the small things that you can. These messages go beyond sports, into the realm of human problems that “The Way Back” navigates so comfortably. By the end, you don’t care as much about who won the playoffs as you do about what the players, and their imperfect coach, learned about themselves in the process.