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The Way Back is a sports film with some surprising depth

The true-story basketball movie starring Ben Affleck features positive portrayals of Catholicism and especially Catholic schools.

Ben Affleck and Melvin Gregg star in a scene from the movie "The Way Back." (CNS photo/Richard Foreman, Warner Bros. Entertainment)

One of the last movies to be released in theaters before the lockdowns started in March, The Way Back has proven to be a solid success on streaming platforms for home viewing. Better yet, it’s a movie full of positive portrayals of Catholicism and especially Catholic schools.

The Way Back is a true-story basketball movie starring Ben Affleck. He plays Jack Cunningham, a former basketball star who walked away from the game due to personal demons but gets a shot at redemption when he takes the coaching job at his alma mater’s team more than twenty years later. It’s the kind of movie that would normally be infused with pumped-up inspirational moments, but instead takes a welcome and surprisingly more low-key approach to its moving tale.

The film opens on Jack’s dreary everyday life, working construction and secretly swigging beers and vodka all day before occupying a barstool each night. He’s the kind of guy who drinks a beer in the shower and can drain at least a 12-pack from his fridge in a given night, and we soon learn that he’s been separated for a year from his wife, sparking growing concern in his sister.

Things change when he gets an unexpected phone call from his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School, with a request to take over coaching duties for their hopeless basketball team. Jack is reluctant to take the gig because it will force him to confront his past, but he shows up anyway. As he slowly overcomes his bad attitude, he is able to gradually convince his team – whose members are shorter than their opponents, and who only have one player with star potential – to win by chipping away at their opponents with relentless application of fundamentals.

Yet it is hardly a smooth ride for Jack, as he clashes frequently with the priests overseeing him and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal) over his often-profane mouth and struggles with drinking. As he faces his real problems, The Way Back moves beyond sports movie clichés to provide a truly moving portrait of a broken man struggling to put his life back together.

Affleck is outstanding in the role, digging deep emotionally to show Jack’s wounded interior while taking on a paunchiness that effectively shows his lack of care for himself. The rest of the cast is also solid, but none of the other characters aside from Jack’s wife (Jenina Gavankar) really get a chance to register strongly. Only the team’s star player Brandon (Brandon Wilson) has his personal life delved into, as he tries to convince his bitter father (Glynn Turman) to support his efforts to shine on the court.

The movie does include a lot of swearing, but rather than just letting the vulgarities fly as if they’re no big deal, it shows that such language is a bad habit and real struggle for Jack to control. In the context of the film’s portrayal of a man overcoming his weaknesses, seeking redemption, and finding reconciliation with those around him, it doesn’t come off nearly as offensive as in most movies.  The two priests and the school they run are positively portrayed throughout, which is a welcome sight in movies these days.

Overall, director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant, Warrior) and writer Brad Ingelsby make The Way Back a warm and genuine movie about humanity and character rather than a rah-rah, shallow cheer-inducer. And they handle the story’s climactic final stretch in some surprising ways, so I’ll give them credit for creating a good film that brings a fresh approach to a timeworn genre.

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About Carl Kozlowski 16 Articles
Carl Kozlowski is a Los Angeles-based, Catholic writer and comedian who wrote the "Cinemazlowski" movie-review column for EWTN's Catholic News Agency for four years and currently writes about film for the LA Archdiocesan magazine Angelus News. He is a Rotten Tomatoes film critic and was arts editor for Pasadena Weekly for a decade. He co-owns and co-runs Catholic Laughs, which brings clean, clever standup comedy with a Catholic twist to Catholic parishes and other venues nationwide. He's also the producer and a cohost of the weekly talk show "Man Up", which is like a funny, conservative "The View" for guys.

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