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High hoops

In the booze-and-basketball drama The Way Back, Ben Affleck bottles his personal history of addiction, with potent results
Thu, Aug 05, 2021

As an actor, Ben Affleck does his best work when playing against the grain of his persona – when building a murmur of corruption or weakness behind the cleanness and strength of features and his presence. He nailed this tension in David Fincher's Gone Girl, playing a coldly indifferent husband accused of murdering his missing wife.

Affleck's newest character brings a more complicated brand of darkness – that of alcohol addiction – in The Way Back, the Gavin O'Connor film currently screening on Showmax.

Addiction is an internal war that Affleck knows all about losing and winning, and he pours all that bitter knowledge into his compelling portrayal of Jack Cunningham, a depressed former school basketball star who is roped in to coaching his old Catholic high school team in Los Angeles.

This is a sports film, and it deploys all the rousing plot ingredients of the genre: the gradual transformation of a ridiculously bad team, the villainous opponents, the emotional redemption arcs of individual players, the looming crucible of the big final. But it's also not a sports film at all: the real meat of the story happens off the court.

There is a moving family subplot surrounding the team's most talented baller, played with superb nuance by Brandon Wilson. The biggest tournament on offer, though, is Cunningham's messy contest with booze – and with the unspeakable pain that the booze has been inadequately numbing.

His estranged wife, Angela (the delicately understated Janine Gavankar) has moved onto a new relationship, but they still share a bond of suffering that will prove the key to Cunningham's escape from oblivion.

Affleck nails the signature behaviours of a pisscat in survival mode: the self-exculpatory lies, the occasional flashes of temper, the lumbering physical heaviness, the nightly descents from joviality to wastedness. Cunningham is being a bit of a dick, in other words.

But the meticulously constructed screenplay – by Mare of Easttown writer Brad Ingelsby, who happens to be the son of a pro basketballer – manages to dodge the twin dangers of addiction fiction: luridity and sentimentality.

Cunningham is a functional drunk; he's a mess, no doubt, but he holds down a job and keeps in touch with his family, however fractiously.This is the humdrum reality of most addicted lives – they are sustainable, but only just. And Affleck's baseline charisma demands a fee of patience from us. That investment is quietly rewarded in the opening act – when he turns toward his better angels, against his worst instincts.

At the point when he is offered the coaching gig, Cunningham hasn't touched a basketball in decades – he ditched the game straight after school in retaliation against his father's hurtful expectations. So the mere thought of returning to a court terrifies him. He spends the night guzzling cans of lager and rehearsing his excuses for saying no.

But the next morning, he says yes anyway, thus finding his first tenuous foothold in an arduous climb back to self-respect. In sport and in life, it can take just one small-but-huge moment to change the game completely.