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Ten minutes into it, we nearly stopped The Way Back

“I’m not at all attached to him,” I complained. Hubby Dave agreed. Ben Affleck’s character, construction-worker Jack Cunningham, emoted nothing.

May I say that I’m very glad we finished this redemptive movie about what can be a life-destroying cocktail of alcoholism and grief? 

In this sports drama and more, Ben Affleck offers a fine performance, perhaps even his best. We first meet protagonist Jack, whom we realize quickly is a seething alcoholic. The handy beer in the morning shower. The case in the otherwise empty fridge and the old trick of replacing the next beer in the freezer. Then a bishop invites him back to the place of his one success: high school basketball. Would Jack assume the role of head coach? 

Reluctantly, he does. And when he starts coaching, he begins his recovery that reaches into the lives of his players. For example, player Marcus must get serious, and Brandon finds his voice along with his way forward. 

Little by little, we feel the contours of Jack’s life. This man who has flat-lined emotionally has good reason to have done so. To say anymore would spoil it. 

I knew the moment in which The Way Back would become one my favorite grief movies. It was the soul-revealing scene that showed what this character has carried. Thankfully, the ending was hopeful enough, but not “happily ever after.”

The language is rough and raw. In fact, Jack, himself, gets in trouble for his expletives; he is coaching at a Catholic high school—a school with standards. The movie is R-rated for this reason. That said, there are some beautiful brief exchanges about faith and Christianity. 

A New York Times article from February explains the extent of Affleck’s own tussle with demon alcohol. In 2018, he entered his third round of highly publicized rehab; the previous were in 2001 and in 2017. Other sources suggest his problem might have been noticed at age 15, thus triggering an Outward Bound adventure. His father and brother struggle with alcoholism, and his family has mental health issues with depression and anxiety. 

Comedian Al Madrigal plays assistant coach and math teacher Dan, who watches Jack’s shabby moments with concern. Director Gavin O’Connor worked with Affleck before in The Accountant and has made other sports dramas like Warrior.

COVID derailed the movie’s release. It had two weeks out in March before the domino of shutdowns started. It’s now available through RedBox or Netflix. This thoughtful movie is worth watching from its start to its finish. (Warner Bros. Pictures) 

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