MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
I’m not saying that The Way Back is a predictable movie, but the tagline on the poster says it for me: “One shot for a second chance”. It’s more than a second chance for director Gavin O’Connor who directed the inspiring fight movie Warrior as well as the family-friendly Disney hockey movie Miracle. Actor Ben Affleck hit the media circuit hard promoting this film, stating that his own struggles with alcoholism informed his acting choices. You just know that it’s going to be uplifting.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck) was once the shining star playing for Bishop Hayes High School, leading them to a state championship and himself to a potential future in sports. But somehow Jack’s trajectory ended and, now in his forties, he spends his days as a construction worker (while drinking on the job) and spending his nights at “Harold’s Place”, escorted home by a barfly buddy when he is fall-down drunk.
Do we really need another film about a down-and-out coach leading a come-from-behind sports team towards victory?
Well, no, not really. But The Way Back may be worth your attention for a few reasons. First of all, it is a Catholic high school basketball team that invites Jack back to fill a coaching position. The movie is surprisingly grace-filled. The priest who invites him to come back (John Aylward) is aware of Jack’s struggles; the assistant coach (Al Madrigal) who helps him get acclimated to the team is patient in his mentoring; and the priest who serves as team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) gently advises him in his language and anger management issues.
Grace prevails, but it is not cheap grace. Jack would like to get back with his wife (Gavankar), who is separated from him and seeing other men, but that is not to be; she knows him too well. But she still loves him as a person and respects their shared history. I appreciated that there was no romantic subplot to this film, and the individual boys on the team were given time to become realized characters. The basketball scenes are well-shot, and the coaching scenes show Cunningham’s skill at teaching the team the plays that they will later put to use on the court.
I did have a few reservations. Jack’s drinking is so extreme, it was hard to believe that the prospect of coaching kids could bring him out of his downward spiral. I also had trouble believing that any school would so lionize a player that they would not only highlight him in their trophy display case but have a separate banner in the gym dedicated in his honor (with no other students receiving such accolades).
The Way Back is clearly a Kit-Kat film (“two movies in one”), working somewhat better in its sports scenes than in its recovery story. Everyone in the cast does great work, but it is a rare inspirational film that has so many F-bombs. I used to advise discerning parents to wait for the cleaned-up televised version, but now with the freedom of speech found on basic cable channels, that option seems to be off the table.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: Religion and spirituality are respected in a predictable but above average sports/recovery film.
Three pitchforks: Pervasive strong swearing; alcoholism; mild acts of aggression.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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