CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Basketball Coaches and Players Struggling to Adhere to a Catholic School Code of Conduct

Release Date: March 6, 2020

Ben Affleck is now at the point in his career where he can play a washed-up, middle-aged high school basketball coach and it is the most natural thing in the world. Honestly, his lead role in The Way Back feels like what he was destined for his whole career. Chip-on-his-shoulder energy has always been a major part of his persona, and now he’s at the age at which it fits most comfortably. He’s taken plenty of lumps, and he’s retreated a bit, but he’s got some loved ones who want him to get back in the game and give it another go. The character of Jack Cunningham is basically the Sad Affleck meme writ large with an even more tragic backstory. He was once the most heralded high school basketball player in the state, but now he spends most of his days in a drunken haze, with his refrigerator stocked entirely with rows of (neatly arranged) beer cans. But then he’s offered the suddenly vacant head coaching job at Bishop Hayes, his Catholic alma mater, and he’s finally motivated to do something he cares about besides wallow around in his misery.

The current state of the Bishop Hayes team is a sick joke compared to what it was in Jack’s heyday. Back then, about a hundred guys tried out for the team, but now, they need to pull up a few guys from the junior varsity squad to even be able to have ten players to run a practice. They’re not without some bright spots, but they’re undersized and outclassed by most of their opponents. They lose their first game with Jack coaching by an unceremonious 36 points, and at that point, it is not clear if this movie will actually be an inspirational story in which they turn it around and start winning. Frankly, it might start to strain credulity a bit too much if they do start challenging for a championship. But The Way Back gratifies viewers who know how basketball works by demonstrating how opportunities open up when you can get past the intimidation factor. Bishop Hayes does indeed start winning, pulling off upsets against ostensibly more talented teams with pressure-filled defense that neutralizes their opponents’ strongest players and by operating offenses that amplify their own strengths. So when that last-second shot in the big game does go through the hoop, the triumph feels legitimate.

But just as The Way Back looks like it is going to wrap up like any other inspirational sports drama, it follows a different, messier strain. Getting back into the game has helped Jack come a long way with his personal rehabilitation, but it hasn’t really addressed what’s eating away at his soul. He and his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) share a deep trauma that he’s nowhere near close to getting over. At a crucial moment, he says, “I never stopped being angry,” and that’s clear enough in every frame without him saying it, but it’s nonetheless powerful to hear it said. The Way Back packs a lot of redemption into an hour and fifty minutes, and I do wonder if these turnarounds will be permanent based on the work we get to see. But the raw, vulnerable energy on display is a blessing to witness.

After one game filled with some profanity-laced tirades, the team’s chaplain gently reminds Jack of the school’s code of conduct, to which Jack replies, considering all the terrible things in this world, does God really give a (not-safe-for-work four-letter word) what he and the boys say? That’s the crux of the matter, that in fact it really does matter how we personally conduct ourselves despite everything awful we’ve been through, and it’s undeniably affecting to witness our fellow humans opening themselves up to that challenge.

The Way Back is Recommended If You Like: Hoosiers, Redemption, Smart coaching

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Comebacks