Producers: Gordon Gray, Jennifer Todd, Gavin O’Connor and Ravi Mehta Director: Gavin O’Connor Screenplay: Brad Ingelsby Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Jeremy Radin, Will Ropp, T.K. Carter, John Aylward, Fernando Luis Vega, Charles Lott Jr., Melvin Gregg, Sal Velez Jr. and Glynn Turman Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Ben Affleck may have retired Batman’s cowl, but not the dark, gloomy attitude he exhibited playing the Caped Crusader in DC’s recent comic-book series. Many may expect the new Gavin O’Connor’s film in which he stars to be little more than a modernized remake of “Hoosiers,” the Gene Hackman 1986 crowd-pleaser about an underdog basketball team and an over-the-hill coach (the generic title certainly suggests it might be). But if so, they will be rather shocked, not least by the demeanor of Affleck’s character.
Yes, the centerpiece of the script by Brad Ingelsby is an unexpected invitation to Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former court star at his Los Angeles Catholic high school, to coach his old team after the guy holding the job suffers a heart attack. He’s been away from the sport since leading his comrades to a state championship nearly a quarter-century earlier, and though avuncular Father Devine (Jack Aylward), the principal at Bishop Hayes, is unaware of Jack’s current situation, he thinks the erstwhile phenom would be perfect for the post.
The problem is that Jack—as we see in scenes from a family Thanksgiving celebration, where he clashes with his sister Gale (Marlene Forte)—is an alcoholic, a construction worker who drinks before coming to work, furtively on the job, and every night at the local dive from which he has to be practically carried home every night by an elderly pal (Glynn Turman). The reason for his descent isn’t revealed until late in the film, but it involves a family tragedy—reflected in the current circumstances of his friend (Sal Velez Jr.)—that also explains his divorce from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), whom he still pines over though she’s moved on.
Initially resistant to taking on the coaching position, he decides to accept it, and has to deal with the fact that the Bishop Hayes squad is in dire need of help. Its tallest member Marcus (Melvin Gregg) is lackadaisical and perpetually late to practice; Chubbs (Charles Lott Jr.) is enthusiastic but undisciplined; Kenny (Will Ropp) is a showboat who is more interested in the cheerleaders than the game; and Brandon (Brandon Wilson) is a talented kid who’s too shy to show his full potential.
After a slow start Cunningham proves an able coach, admired by his assistant, math teacher Dan (amiable Al Madrigal), though the team chaplain Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin) is somewhat upset over the salty language he uses in dealing with other coaches and the refs during games. Before long the team is running smoothly and winning game after game, aiming for a shot at state, which will require their defeating the apparently invincible team that walloped them just as Jack came aboard.
The question at the heart of “The Way Back” is whether Cunningham will be able to stay sober or suffer a relapse under the stress of his personal grief. In a way, the answer is telegraphed by the fact that the screenplay is by Ingelsby, whose previous work (“Out of the Furnace,” “Run All Night,” “American Woman”) has emphasized how intractable the troubles of lower-class people can be. It tends to be more than a little schematic, explaining the reasons behind Jack’s fall from grace in psychologically obvious terms. But it also refuses to wave them away easily.
Visually Cunningham’s surroundings—and the condition of the Bishop Hayes campus—are also depicted without any hint of romanticizing, the grittiness palpable (courtesy not merely of O’Connor’s direction but of Keith P. Cunningham’s production design and Eduard Grau’s cinematography).
The performances are equally authentic. Affleck brings a world-weariness to Cunningham, punctuated by moments of anger and depression, that has a genuine feel, which some may attribute, at least partially, to the actor’s own well-publicized personal turmoil. The rest of the cast is admirable, with Madrigal standing out as a crowd favorite, while the team members—especially the cocky Gregg and Ropp and the soulful Wilson—all get their moments in the spotlight, and the scenes of play look realistic, even if the team’s transformation is portrayed in dramatic shorthand and David Rosenbloom’s editing is sometimes as jumpy as the court action. Rob Simonsen contributes a mostly mournful, minimalist score that only occasionally gives in to rah-rah conventionality.
There will be viewers who find the close of “The Way Back” unsatisfying because in a couple of respects it’s open-ended. But while the lack of a clear-cut resolution may irritate some, it’s an appropriate way to conclude a film that is more a raw character study of a deeply flawed man than a rousing tale of easy redemption.