Way Back an exceptional look at grief and recovery

Some of us go through life in a haze. A seemingly insurmountable pain is ever-present, a relentless feeling that is ultimately accepted; one that, inexplicably, would be missed were it to disappear. Friends and loved ones give well-meaning suggestions that are heard and sometimes acted upon but ultimately, they are of no use. Despite their soundness, these words are ultimately ignored, any progress having been made by acting on them, scuttled. One day is like the next, none more exciting than the last. They run together without end, until there is an end, one filled with regret, pain and some relief. Of course, this is all avoidable. Problem is, the afflicted person simply doesn't think they're worth the effort to save.

Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back tells the story of one such man, one carrying a burden no one should have to bear, an emotional weight that will never leave him. Once a high school basketball star, Jack Cunningham is a man whose life consists of wasted opportunities. Having thrown away a full-ride college basketball scholarship, he now works construction, occasionally visits his sister and her family and spends most of his days drinking himself into a stupor. He gets up, goes to work, occasionally hears from his wife whom he's separated from and often winds up a neighborhood bar, where a friend walks him home, Cunningham having drunk himself to the point of incoherency. The next day comes; the cycle begins again.

Yet, he's given another chance. The high school he attended is in need of a basketball coach. He is called and asked to take this position, which he does so reluctantly, not afraid that he may fail but fearful that he may come to cherish something that will be taken away. His team is a group of ragtag kids that he whips into shape. Victories come where they haven't before, but more importantly, the boys begin to believe in themselves, Cunningham's greatest contribution.

What with his own much-publicized battle with alcoholism, it's impossible to separate Ben Affleck from Cunningham. The actor gives the performance of a lifetime as he's keenly aware of the journey his character is on and it shows in the lived-in nature of his performance. He is drawn, heavy, walking like a man condemned throughout, unafraid to show how out of control and ugly one becomes when this sort of self-destruction behavior takes hold. This is a brave performance, one tinged with a sense of realism that is, at times so revealing, it's uncomfortable to witness. Affleck embraces the truth about his character and himself, fearlessly showing the depths he has fallen into but never in a self-serving way. He is providing a service to all that suffer as he does, putting himself forth as a cautionary tale to be heeded and he's never been more sympathetic or likable as a result.

Credit O'Connor and his co-writer Brad Ingelsby for eschewing the typical sports film tropes. While miraculous victories occur on the hardwood and a championship game does occur, they are not the focus of the movie. They are smart enough to know that a typical Hollywood ending would undercut the power and sincerity of their story. Their focus is elsewhere, on emotional issues that resonate far beyond a cliched storybook ending.

There's a sense of grace about The Way Back that makes it exceptional. In clumsier hands, this could have been a maudlin, melodramatic film. Instead, its focus is on small, intimate victories, those that go unnoticed by the masses, those that come one day at a time, with no guarantee that tomorrow will yield the same result. It and Affleck's honesty demand our attention; to witness this work is the least the viewer can do.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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