Film_Review_-_The_Way_Back_92079

Charles Lott Jr., Ben Affleck and Al Madrigal in a scene from “The Way Back.” Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

With “The Way Back,” Ben Affleck didn’t have to deliver his biggest or most attention-getting performance, simply — and simplicity is hard — his truest.

As a one-time Torrance, Calif., high school basketball phenom who threw it all away and struggled with addiction and grief ever since, the actor brings some well-chronicled rehab, relapse and recovery challenges of his own to the assignment. His character’s explosive moments, on and off the court, are there, but mostly Affleck is required to behave, not “deliver,” while striking different, often dissonant notes within a minor-key portrayal.

There’s a lot to admire about “The Way Back,” originally titled “Torrance” and then, bluntly, “The Has-Been.” As the marketing campaign indicates, it focuses more on its Passion-of-the-Coach parable and less on the individual players getting their act together.

There’s another drama going on here, however, a push-pull between honest, ruminative detail and predictable, conspicuously engineered story beats. “Hoosiers” worked the same way, more successfully, but they’re kindred movie spirits. Audiences tend to enjoy that sort of tension in their sports movies: You come for the wrenching human drama; you stay for the shameless, slow-mo buzzer-beaters.

Affleck’s character, Jack Cunningham, is playing a one-man “Hoosiers” amalgam of Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. His daily routine keeps it bare-bones, and progressively more depressing. Jack works at a San Pedro, Calif., construction site, filling his coffee thermos with liquor by day, drinking himself into a stupor and a stumble most nights. (His barfly guardian angel, played by Glynn Turman, is there for plot expediency.)

For a year Jack has lived alone; his marriage to Angela (Janina Gavankar) is on ice and haunted by a shared tragedy revealed midway through Brad Inglesby’s screenplay. Basketball saves him, the hard way. Jack’s glory years, on the court at a Catholic school he once led to victory, are well behind him, but the school needs a coach. Soon Jack, alongside the assistant coach and math teacher (Al Madrigal, effortless and valuable every second), begins molding his players. One in particular catches his eye, a quiet kid (played by Brandon Wilson) with untapped leadership instincts.

Director Gavin O’Connor sets the tone here, referring back to his earlier sports pictures “Miracle” and “Warrior.” “The Way Back” goes its own, bittersweet way, though. The movie’s about confidence, as much as it’s about alcoholism or second chances, and how one person can regain it for himself while instilling it in others.

There’s a lot of plot potential in “The Way Back,” with scenes between Affleck and Michaela Watkins, who tips around the edges of the narrative as Jack’s judgy but loving sister. The specter of abusive father figures hangs heavily over the story. Director O’Connor has an eye for working-class locations and lived-in atmosphere; the script meets the direction halfway, favoring revelations and setbacks the audience can feel coming, even without composer Rob Simonsen cueing our responses in advance.

Affleck and O’Connor previously worked on the surprise hit “The Accountant,” which featured a different kind of shooting. There’s probably a longer cut of “The Way Back” begging to be assembled, a more relaxed version sacrificed in the name of getting the thing well under a two-hour running time. As is, Jack’s story is the only real story here.

But unlike, say, the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle “The Judge,” a glossier brand of middle-aged redemption, O’Connor’s film feels a little more like life. Affleck does a lot with a tailor-made role, by doing as little as his movie stardom will allow him. This sort of project doesn’t pay like a Batman or Michael Bay movie, I realize. But if he plays a regular, flawed human being every once in a while, decades from now Affleck will leave the court a better player.

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