What’s refreshing about The Way Back is that it doesn’t follow the familiar sports movie path. This is not the 2020 version of Hoosiers, and whether or not there’s a winner or a happy ending is left for viewers to determine — a nice bit of trust placed in the audience by director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant), who co-wrote the script with Brad Inglesby (Run All Night).
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is steered toward a road to redemption when given an opportunity to coach the basketball team at his former high school. Cunningham was the best player in school history, set to be a college star at Kansas and maybe more. But he squandered his future with self-destructive tendencies that have lingered well into adulthood. Personal tragedy furthered a downward spiral that cost Cunningham his marriage and left him as a barely functioning alcoholic.
But coaching a talented yet underachieving team awakens something in Cunningham. Maybe he sees some of himself in star player Brandon (Brandon Wilson), who needs encouragement to fulfill a potential that shouldn’t be wasted. Viewed by the community as the returning hero, perhaps Cunningham realizes this is a chance to reinvent himself. Or maybe a basketball court is the only place where the world makes sense for him. Work hard, work together and good things will happen.
Many possibilities exist in what isn’t a simple story. What is clear, however, is that Affleck’s performance is a great one. The Way Back may not be as uplifting or conventional as expected, but that makes it worth watching.