Recovery comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s funny, then, how the cinema of recovery always occupies the same shape, the same mold as the picture before it. There are endless ways to tell a story, if there are not endless stories to tell. With a potentially taboo subject, the execution is so often safe and soft, nothing like the harrowing experience of recovery itself. Coming off anything is excruciating, like sitting through the same movie you’ve seen a hundred times. There are glimmers of hope. We occasionally receive a profoundly different story, executed in a different style. Last year’s Rocketman filled me with such great hope for the future of the Recovery Movie, a hope so often dashed by basic rehab pictures and simple redemption stories. The Way Back is the same old story, for most of its runtime. It does not even play quite like a subversion, but as a full movie and then a short follow-up movie that says what it always meant to say, more concisely.
A film of two parts, The Way Back is, at first, the standard sports recovery biopic. It does not stray far from such material. We find Ben Affleck engaging with his own real-life recovery — seemingly, he has never been more truly himself — fulfilling the role of the troubled sports coach. An old star basketball player, he is tasked with turning around the fate of a catholic high school’s basketball team. His life has paved a difficult road toward this path. He’s just lost his child from a terrible disease and been divorced. He has a propensity for swearing, often toward God, on the bench. He drinks too much and is more regular at the bar than the sounds of the jukebox.
Affleck has rarely been so personable. It does not feel like he’s acting. Of course, he has lived some of this experience. For us addicts, there is always a shared truth. There is a great reason we find so much value in the simple company of strangers with the same affliction, why it is often enough to keep us sober. It seems like The Way Back is never going to get there. It takes the scenic route to the destination of serenity. His Road of Happy Destiny is a curvy one, full of twists and redirections. We spend a lot of time initially in his sports scenario. Sharply, the film does not feel indulgent in that portrayal. It cuts away from the basketball whenever the edit demands another movement. It is never beholden to show the buzzer-beater, a big play, more interested in the range of dynamics between recovering coach and his players.
The team forms a basis for Affleck’s coach to reconnect with his community. He has found a means for giving back. We see his hardcourt therapy working magic. Courtside, a great relief is lifted from him, the immeasurable guilt tied to the loss of his son. We can feel him shouldering that pain and finally releasing all of his anguish. For his part, this is real good acting. Janina Gavankar supportively plays his grieving wife. The marriage is just a remnant of their old pain, a reminder of his lost son, and she has moved on to another man. She has left him his old red truck, which so often plays beautifully into the photography. Editor David Rosenbloom has done such a good job keeping the edit with the movement here, of telling multiple stories and doing it so cleanly. After Affleck, he is the secondary hero of the picture.
The story does finally get to the good recovery stuff. The final act shifts gears in a big way. Coach Jack must begin dealing with the great consequences of his alcohol abuse. The basketball fades from the frame and we get to live with his character more personally. We’re given time for quiet, and pain, and growth. It feels so damn good, you can only wish it were the whole movie. This time, the usual beat-by-beat sports redemption story finds its own redemption in one final, arcing movement. And director Gavin O’Connor makes sure it pays off strongly.
Gavin O’Connor now has enough sports films to show a progression of ideas and themes. With Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), he created the best coach-to-athlete picture about hockey’s biggest international game and a secretly great Mixed Martial Arts story about alcoholism in the family. With The Way Back, he has combined both his great sense for the coaching story and the sturdy foundation of addiction, to craft a sports film that constantly grows on the audience, until we accept that, yes, Ben Affleck is back for more, and that’s a real good thing.