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Ben Affleck and Brandon Wilson in a scene from The Way Back.

Richard Foreman/The Associated Press

  • The Way Back
  • Directed by Gavin O’Connor
  • Written by Brad Ingelsby
  • Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal and Michaela Watkins
  • Classification 14A; 108 minutes

rating

The Way Back is not a basketball movie. It’s a grief/booze/recovery movie. But it follows a familiar playbook: Our hero is down at the tip-off, up at the halftime buzzer, has a rough third quarter and then drives hard to the end – though the film dearly hopes that its big finish is not the one you expect.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), we are told many times, was a Catholic League high-school basketball god, player of the year in ’93-’94 (reads the banner that dominates his former gym). Guys in his Southern California industrial neighborhood still talk about his 47-point game. But when we meet him, he’s separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), sullen with his sister, Beth (Michaela Watkins), and pounding booze around the clock. His soap rack holds the beers he swills during his morning shower. He pours gin into his thermos at his construction job. He spends his evenings closing down the local bar.

What’s new in theatres this weekend, including the delightful Onward and regrettable Rob Ford film Run This Town

All of this is true to life, but being true to the life of an alcoholic gets boring, since the disease involves repetitive self-destruction. The first act is slooooow.

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Then out of the blue, Jack gets a phone call from his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High. Their basketball squad is flailing (enrolment down, only 10 kids on the roster, stuck in a losing streak), and now the coach is sick. Can Jack sub in and save them – and oh yes, just maybe, save himself along the way?

Things pick up in the second quarter. Jack swears a blue streak, to the chagrin of his assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal). But the kids are receptive to his underdog philosophy – always keep pressing. Do the little things right. Play with a chip on your shoulder. Cue the “We’re winning!” montage.

Affleck gives one of his best performances in years as an alcoholic who becomes the coach of his former high school's basketball team.

Richard Foreman/The Associated Press

There are some fouls. Director Gavin O’Connor (who previously directed Affleck in The Accountant) distinguishes the players in only the most cursory ways: one has a father who doesn’t support his hoop dreams; one is a Lothario; one is called Chubbs (he also dances funny). And what happens to all Jack’s drinking? We never see him stop; there’s no sweaty cold-turkey scene. But suddenly he appears able to get by fairly sober.

Until, that is, the beginning of the third quarter, when we get the big reveal, the family tragedy (a wholly legitimate one, which I won’t spoil) that split Jack’s marriage and sent him to the bottom of the bottle. After a party scene that’s subtle but strong, Jack tells Angela, “I never stop being angry,” and fair enough. Still, it’s time to cue the downward spiral; Jack returns to booze, swears at a ref and gets tossed from the game, crashes his car, lands in the clink.

Throughout, Affleck does his best acting in years – charming where he can be, a jerk when the story requires it. He’s handed a pair of monologues to explain his backstory, and although they’re too tidy (two words: daddy issues), he finesses them. He’s not playing himself in any way, but he seems to know a lot about a guy who was formerly on top, whose drinking and denial cost him his marriage and threatened a career he loves.

The film clearly wants to take Jack’s advice – to chip away at home truths, to pay attention to the little things – and often it succeeds. In the fourth quarter, it pivots away from the sports-movie playbook and sets the climax off the court. It’s a solid effort. There are guts here, just not quite enough glory.

The Way Back opens March 6

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