Lost high school basketball coach finds ‘The Way Back’

Written By Hannah Walden, Co-Copy Desk Chief

In “The Way Back,” we follow the struggles of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) as he balances his turbulent troubles with grief, depression and alcoholism with coaching high school basketball.

Throughout his daily life, you never see Jack without a drink. He drinks at his construction job, while driving, in the shower and he can be found at his local bar every night getting so drunk he’s walked home by a friend only referred to as “Doc.”

We learn that Jack has a bittersweet relationship with basketball. On the way home from a game, Jack tells the star player, Brandon (Brandon Wilson) that his relationship with his father was terrible because his father only showed him affection after he did well at basketball. It wasn’t long until Jack felt that his father only loved what he could do on the court and not him as a person, which prompted him to quit and never play again, even when he had tons of scholarships handed to him for college basketball.

Jack met and married a woman named Angie (Janina Gavankar), who gave him love and helped him with the pain as a result of the relationship he had with his father. Together they had a nine-year old son named Michael.

Michael was diagnosed with an aggressive and painful cancer and eventually passed away. Unable to manage the pain and grief, Jack took to drinking, closing himself off and stopped speaking about his son completely. With these issues dividing them, Jack and Angie split up, causing his negative coping mechanisms to worsen.

The film starts with Jack’s alma mater hiring him as the boys’ basketball coach. The team has such a significant losing streak that they haven’t made it to the regional level since 1995 when Jack played.

His rough and direct way of coaching really speaks to the small team of boys, directing them to not just play harder, but to not roll over and take a loss. This causes the season to shift in their favor as they start winning multiple games in a row by a small margin.

We see a montage of Jack’s coaching and the team’s progression through each game and each week of practice, adapting to each challenge. We see Jack’s day drinking start to slow during this part of the film, a nice peak in his journey.

When stressful issues that remind Jack of the past resurface, his drinking does too. Issues with his ex-wife and a birthday party for one of Michael’s friends, who has the same diagnosis that Michael had, resurface the pain Jack is desperately trying to drown out.

After trying to help Jack from spiraling out, the assistant coach and the principal fire Jack from coaching right at the end of the season before regionals, because of his drinking on school grounds and arriving to practice hours late.

After already being in a low place, he is hit with misfortune again when the child whose party he just attended is back in the hospital with terrible news that Jack knows too well.

Jack falls off the already rickety wagon hard and drinks a lot at the bar. Without Doc there to protect him, he gets into a sticky situation after accidentally breaking into the wrong house, getting into a fight with the homeowner and falling down a set of porch steps to the street.

After a terrible night, he wakes up in the hospital with his sister, who puts him in a mental facility that provides him counseling. We finally see Jack taking the right steps to work on his issues and learn about them, as the issues are either alluded to or are slowly told to us as the film progresses.

There is a good balance between Jack’s struggles and game-time footage in the film. Each game has a couple seconds each with the final score cut in between practices and Jack’s struggle to balance these responsibilities with his drinking problem. There is more shown of the team’s practices and prep for each game than actual game-time, making the point that learning happens during practice and crazy unbelievable game moments aren’t realistic.

The film ends with the students going to regionals, vowing to win the game “for coach,” giving each other plays and tips just like Jack would, showing his impact on the players and their desire to win.

While the game is about to begin, Jack isn’t there. Instead, he takes a basketball and goes to a court by the ocean and takes shots at the basket for the first time since his traumatic high school days, making three-pointers while the sound of sports commentators talking about the ways they have noticed the team has grown under Jack’s leadership.

Regardless of how some trailers present this film, it is more of a story of Jack’s struggle and redemption than a story about a high school basketball team’s redemption; although both happen on and off screen and are very well executed story lines that work hand-in-hand.

The boys grew as athletes and as a team with the desire to win, and Jack grew into better understanding his emotions and pain as well as healthy ways to deal with his issues that don’t cause more suffering for him and the people around him.

I’ve seen two different trailers for this film, and only one of them accurately depicts the film’s premise while the other portrays a basketball team’s redemption under the leadership of a new coach.

We don’t know if the team wins the regional game, and we don’t see the next steps of Jack’s recovery, but we see that both of these storylines move in a positive direction. We know based on the film that the boys will continue to emulate coach Jack in their playing, so we don’t have to worry about their success.

We see that Jack is taking the steps he needs to get better and fix the relationships in his life. He speaks to his ex-wife more and even apologizes for what he did and failed to do. He spends more time with his sister’s family, especially his nephew, strengthening his family ties and building better relationships with them.

This is a realistic ending. We know his redemption will be slow and steady—it has to be if he really wants to put this pain behind him and move forward. There is no perfect, happy ending. There is no complete resolution where we see Jack recovered; we see his first steps, which are the most important ones.

I left the theater hopeful and content, not knowing how his recovery journey will end, without seeing the next peaks and valleys because the film would have lost its realism trying to smoosh a happy ending in. A journey like this one is hard. It takes time and is internal. We wouldn’t be able to be there and see his growth past a certain point, but to know the foundation is there is enough to be hopeful that Jack’s way back is going to be a good one.