By Lynn Venhaus
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” – The Serenity Prayer
This is really a movie with the Serenity Prayer theme front and center. A grieving alcoholic father’s road to redemption is wrapped around an inspiring high school sports story – think “Hoosiers” meets “A Star is Born” (2018), “The Verdict,” and/or “Flight.”
Once a high school hotshot, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) threw away his full ride to Kansas. His adult life – construction job, failed marriage, personal tragedy – has not turned out that well either. Using alcohol to mask his pain and self-hatred, he’s mired in a bad place. Then, his alma mater, Bishop Hays High School, calls to offer the head coach job. Going back to the school where he had his glory days proves to be redeeming as he turns around the team. But it’s not an overall fix, as he needs to deal with his demons and addiction, and his family ultimately helps put him on the path to recovery.
“The Way Back” is not your typical rah-rah sports underdog tale, to director Gavin O’Connor’s credit. O’Connor worked with star Ben Affleck in one of his best performances, “The Accountant,” and gave us “Miracle” about the U.S. 1980 Olympic hockey team and his acclaimed estranged family drama with a mixed martial arts focus, “Warrior.”
O’Connor knows how to stage sports action and captures well the re-energized youths of the Hays Tigers, with stand-out performances from Melvin Gregg as showboat Marcus and Brandon Wilson as loner Brandon, the team’s best player. Al Madrigal is memorable as assistant coach Dan.
But make no mistake, this is Ben Affleck’s comeback, and the parallels between his real-life battles with alcoholism, relapse and recovery come into play. You can’t help but think of his demons that he has wrestled with his entire life, for it is a genetic family disease.
Many families can relate to this struggle, which is why the film succeeds. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s realistic.
Beefy, with slumped shoulders signaling life defeat, Jack makes it through the day by drinking. He’s a construction worker with a cooler in his truck and vodka in his water bottle. After work, he’s either stopping at a liquor store or is a barfly, helped up the steps of his drab L.A. apartment at closing time.
His family watches his self-destruction. Sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) sees their father in Jack’s downward spiral. His ex-wife Angela (Janina Gvankar) tries to be supportive.
While he can’t get a handle on adulting, he sure finds his purpose in coaching his alma mater’s basketball team. He turns the team into a unified group who believes in their ability to win.
Yet, until Jack deals with his alcoholism, his life can’t get back on track. So, we see all the steps – the hitting bottom, the facing his troubles in rehab, the making amends. It’s a one day at a time process, no simple solutions.
It’s a sobering film, unconventional in a way because nothing is neatly tied up.
Understated, using natural light and dark shadows, its view is clear, despite some clunky transitions in the script by Brad Ingelsby.
And Affleck, with a strong body of work – and two Oscars – doesn’t have to prove his talent, but shows he is ready to move on to a better second act.
And his character sees more clearly now because of this hard-fought journey, which is reason to cheer, no matter how the team did in the playoffs.
“The Way Back” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and starring Ben Affleck. It is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. Running time is: 1 hr. 48 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.