The convergence of high-school basketball and alcoholism inevitably invokes Hoosiers, one of the greatest sports movies ever made. As if leaning into the comparison, The Way Back even gives one coach a heart attack and has the coach protagonist ejected from a game for raging at a referee.
But screenwriter Brad Ingelsby and director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Warrior) have other ideas. The Way Back blends the beats of two familiar genres, the underdog sports movie and the addiction and recovery movie, in the process finding a rhythm that feels at once familiar and not quite like anything I’ve seen before.
The two story elements overlap at Bishop Hayes High School in Los Angeles’ working-class San Pedro neighborhood, where Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham, a bearded, heavyset construction worker and hard-drinking but mostly functional alcoholic, was once a high-school basketball star with a seemingly bright future.
Jack isn’t looking to take on something new when he gets a call from his alma mater. The school’s longtime head, Father Devine (John Aylward), explains that their head coach suffered a heart attack and that their struggling team, the Tigers, could use an infusion of the vitality Jack brought to their game.
Jack, who has never coached and hasn’t touched a basketball in decades, tries to decline, but Father Devine insists that he sleep on it. In the harrowing evening binge that follows, Jack rehearses a series of increasingly ill-formed refusals.
What ultimately moves him to accept? The film shrewdly skips to Jack showing up at the next day’s practice. I like to think that in the end he just can’t say no to this priest from his youth.
The screenwriter’s brother, Martin Ingelsby, is head coach at the University of Delaware and played at Archbishop Carroll High School in Philadelphia and at Notre Dame. Their father, Tom, was a star player at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and at Villanova before going on to play for the NBA and ABA.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.