Chronicling a bad high school team going from zero to hero after a coach gets personal happens in film often enough that we often pay little attention at release. In “The Way Back” we get something different enough that it’s worth turning our head – an atypical coach and sports centered film that centers more on the coach’s personal struggles with alcohol than the players.

The main character and our coach, Jack Cunningham, is played by Ben Affleck. Affleck felt particularly akin to this role having suffered alcoholism himself throughout his life. Jack has suffered a tremendous loss, has separated from his wife, and become salty and lonely in his self-medicated alcoholism before being given a glimpse of hope at redeeming his life.

“The Way Back” released Friday, March 6, a springtime “sports” drama.

The film begins with Jack drinking on the job of a construction site showing his clear alcohol problem from the get-go, just in case you hadn’t seen the trailer. Mixing his drink in a closed container, Jack ensures no one notices his addiction.

Jack operates as a functional alcoholic during most of the film only making his drunkenness apparent a few times.

Shortly into the film Jack’s asked to coach his old High School’s basketball team. He’s told bluntly they are no good. And he believes them. Over a night of drinking, where he’s adamantly opposed, Jack apparently decides yes by morning as he shows up at his old Catholic High School.

For the first few games Jack continues his usual routine of drinking, driving, and hiding. However, after a few games (and being called out by the assistant coach) he becomes inspired and suddenly stops visiting the bar.

The players get some focus, one being a player of lady’s hearts, another being better than he gives himself enough credit, and another who’s only fault is arrogance and showing up late regularly. Jack fixes any attitudes quickly through brutish tactics and some heart.

Jack is regularly reminded of his temper and unclean language by the priest and his assistant coach. Jack shows that cursing is more addictive than alcohol. But, he gets his point across and turns the team around.

Games start to be won and all appears well for Jack until he and his separated wife meet at the hospital for a friend. Jack gets thrown back to the tragedy that caused his alcoholism and he’s off the rails. The movie transforms back into a tragic story about an alcoholic.

Affleck’s performance is good, but nothing to rave about. The majority of the show he’s either drunk and falling over or cursing at a bunch of kids, but he does well in the emotional parts even if anti-climatic.

Director Gavin O’Connor helped write alongside Brad Ingleby. It’s clear their attempt was to balance the focus between coach and students, weighing more heavily on the coach, but a significant amount of time is spent dramatizing the sports-side of things. Unfortunately, we get left failing to climax on both sides.

The film has a lot of seat clenching moments from when the team’s about to win/lose and when Affleck is about to dive down a set of stairs or fall over. But both stories manage to fizzle out toward the end.

The film doesn’t lack all inspiration. Affleck’s involvement in one of the student’s lives and some moments between him and his ex-wife are moving.

However, a better conclusion feels desperately needed post movie.

“The Way Back” costed $30 million to make. Worldwide the film has grossed $10 million opening weekend. Not a real weak first weekend, but not great.
An R-Rating is fitting for strong language. Little to no sexual content exists in the film, but some suggestive comments are made. Alcohol is also on heavy display.

At two-hours long, the film moves quickly, but may be disappointing on the way back. Waiting for Redbox is suggested.