Jack Cunningham has the moves of a veteran alcoholic.
When Jack drinks at home, he puts one can of beer in the freezer to make it extra cold. Every time he’s ready for a fresh one, he grabs a can from the fridge, puts it in the freezer and subs it out for the can already there.
When it’s quitting time at the construction site, Jack heads to his truck and pours a can of beer into a fast-food beverage cup, so he’ll have something to drink on his way to Harold’s Bar, his nightly hangout.
He also drinks in the shower, and in the office, and pretty much wherever and whenever he’s awake.
Ben Affleck plays the hard-drinking former high school basketball star now coaching at his alma mater in “The Way Back,” and it’s impossible not to acknowledge how this story has distinct parallels to Affleck’s long and very public struggles with addiction.
There’s an early scene in “The Way Back” when Jack shows up at his sister’s house for Thanksgiving with a box filled with booze. It’s all too reminiscent of the infamous tabloid photos of a relapsing Affleck taking delivery for a box of liquor and beer.
Still, to the credit of Affleck’s performance, an involving script by Brad Inglesby (who penned the scripts for “Out of the Furnace” and “American Woman,” two of the most criminally underappreciated films of the last decade) and strong, docudrama-style direction from Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior,” the Affleck-starring “The Accountant”), “The Way Back” stands on its own as a sports drama following the classic underdog story arc — and an unflinching portrait of a broken man staring down the barrel of two options: get help and start repairing his life, or die.
Jack is 25 years past his days as a local high basketball legend who threw away a full ride to Kansas. (Shades of Affleck’s character in “The Town,” a onetime pro hockey prospect who made one bad decision after another.) He grinds through his construction job, gets loaded at the local bar or at home, passes out, wakes up and does it all over again.
Even the people who love Jack the most, including his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and his estranged wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), are at or near the breaking point with him.
In a not entirely plausible but necessary plot contrivance, when the head coach at Jack’s alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School, is put out of commission, Jack is offered the job — even though he’s never coached in his life and hasn’t picked up a basketball in nearly a quarter-century.
At this point, “The Way Back” shifts gears to become a root-for-the-little-guys sports movie a la “Hoosiers.” Even though enrollment at the parochial school is way down and there are only 10 players on a woeful hoops team with exactly one victory on the season, Jack finds a way to motivate the squad, and in the process appears to be making some progress on the personal front. (Though he’s still drinking too much, and his obscenity-laced sideline outbursts concern the team chaplain, mostly to comedic effect.)
The basketball scenes are impressively choreographed, as Bishop Hayes goes on an unlikely winning streak and is positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since Jack’s playing days. Jack becomes a positive force, on and off the court, in the lives of these kids.
Until … well, let’s just say there’s a lot more movie still to come, and a lot of lingering subplots still to be addressed.
Religious symbolism and references to faith abound in “The Way Back,” from the obvious (it’s a priest at Bishop Hayes who offers Jack his chance for redemption) to small visual touches, e.g., Angela’s gold cross pendant, and the small crosses on the backs of the team’s jerseys, to one character’s passionate outburst about not believing a deceased loved one is “in a better place.”
Moreover, nearly every supporting character in this film has a heavy cross to bear, e.g., when Jack asks Dan (Al Madrigal), the assistant coach and a full-time teacher at Bishop Hayes, why he didn’t take over the head coaching job, and Dan explains his mother has MS, and he and his sister split the care-giving duties, and there are only so many hours in the day.
At times, “The Way Back” skirts the edges of melodramatic overkill, with an overabundance of heartbreaking, backstory subplots. (Even a late-arriving character who is literally out of focus for much of her brief onscreen time seems to be a mess.) But despite those momentum-stalling and unnecessary detours, the irresistibly cheer-worthy basketball sequences and Affleck’s resonant and authentic performance are more than enough to carry the day.