I don’t think I can help you.
This isn’t a sports movie. While a lot of similar films (troubled adult is asked to coach a bunch of troubled kids en route to everyone finding an identity and purpose they couldn’t before) do try to distance themselves from that stigma, The Way Back seems intentionally built upon this separation. When all is said and done, there’s barely any basketball on-screen at all besides close-ups showing a full press defense and practices showing player strengths and weaknesses. The bulk of the games actually unfold as vignettes of Coach Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) swearing until the final score arrives via freeze frame. So rather than use human drama to propel sports action, director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby use sports logistics to provide structure for that drama.
It makes perfect sense since the basketball has never been anyone’s problem. Jack was a state champion and MVP in high school before his life went off the rails, got back on track, and ultimately imploded again. Brandon (Brandon Wilson), Marcus (Melvin Gregg), Kenny (Will Ropp), and Freeze (Ben Irving) each have talent if only they allow their egos to take a backseat to what they must do to achieve success. This marriage between coach and athletes is therefore predicated on the mental fortitude and emotional heart necessary to push oneself out of their head. It’s about letting Brandon find confidence, Marcus humility, Kenny structure, and Freeze faith. And it’s about Jack remembering what it’s like to be happy and how happiness feels without alcohol numbing its impact.
That means the highs and lows don’t happen on the court for him. We assume Jack still sneaks liquor into his coffee mug and uses Tic Tacs to cover the smell despite being an honest to goodness role model for the kids (although Jeremy Radin‘s Father Mark would love him to cut down on the profanity). Win or lose, the basketball that’s helping the boys mature is really only giving him an alternative to the depressive, drunken evenings he had been enjoying. The question is now whether or not that distraction will be enough to keep his mind off the pain when confronted by its memory due to family (Michaela Watkins as his sister Beth), friends (Sal Velez Jr. as Miguel), and his soon-to-be ex-wife (Janina Gavankar‘s Angela).
The answer is obviously a resounding “No” since the alternative negates the film’s entire need to exist, but I won’t get into the details since O’Connor and Ingelsby take pains to reveal them slowly. It doesn’t take much to guess why Jack and Angela are on the outs considering the extent of his addiction, but letting the story corroborate those assumptions is a worthwhile enough experience to not have it ruined early. Just know that triggering events will occur during the course of Jack’s unofficial rehabilitation and it won’t take much for him to backslide. And while you can pity the fact that he’s hurting, you cannot deny that he deserves the consequences. He’s isolated himself beyond the point of earning the benefit of the doubt.
It’s through the kids that he has the potential to improve because they mirror the choices he’s made. Marcus has the same stubborn need to hide feelings and desires in a bid to be “strong” while Brandon lives with similarly advanced talents and a familiar home life doing all it can to stifle his dream. Maybe if Jack can help them escape the psychological hang-ups he couldn’t, the vicarious catharsis earned might open his heart to the fact he still has a chance to follow their lead. His fate doesn’t have to be at the bottom of a bottle. He can pick that basketball back up and be the type of man these kids need precisely because his own father wasn’t. Winning games proves meaningless otherwise.
The role is somewhat of a departure for Affleck since it asks him to mine the dark truths of his own life for nuanced emotions above action star charisma. It aligning with his personal battles opposite alcoholism and divorce therefore provided an opportunity to heal wounds left by his many regrets while also delivering what might be a career best performance. Credit the script for letting him find that headspace because it not being a “sports” movie gives the plot some room to not focus on the tropes inherent to the genre. Ingelsby and O’Connor aren’t working towards a buzzer beater in the championship game to metaphorically say everything will be okay. They aren’t even working towards showing us that game. The road is more important.
Every moment Jack leaves the stadium—victorious or not—is a moment that will inevitably unravel him if what’s going on with those he cares about or memories he can’t ignore become too much to bear. He can coach his team to the biggest win they’ll ever have and still end up waking in a hospital bed the next morning because the pain will always be stronger than the elation if he refuses to work on the former in ways that will prevent the latter from being but a Band-Aid. Jack and his players can only take each other so far. They’ll conquer their proverbial humps together, but the strength to remain standing afterwards becomes theirs alone. This message might not be original, but it’s very effectively drawn.
 © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Caption: (L-r) TYLER O’MALLEY as Daly, BEN IRVING as Bobby Freeze, HERBERT MORALES as Dearborn, ROMAN MATHIS as Carter, CHARLES LOTT JR. as Chubbs Hendricks, MATEO ORTIZ as Amato, BEN AFFLECK as Jack Cunningham and AL MADRIGAL as Dan in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “THE WAY BACK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Caption: (L-r) BEN AFFLECK as Jack and MELVIN GREGG as Marcus Parrish in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “THE WAY BACK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Caption: (L-r) BEN AFFLECK as Jack and JANINA GAVANKAR as Angela in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “THE WAY BACK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.