Something akin to Bad News Bears meets Manchester By the Sea doesn’t sound like a winning combination, but O’Connor and Affleck make it work with a constant emphasis on what Jack’s behavior looks like to others. His assistant, a teacher played by Al Madrigal, is put in conflict when he finds beer cans in Jack’s trash can. The back of his bar buddy, played by Glynn Turman, can’t be in good shape after helping Jack inside his house night after night. His antics aren’t charming and would be destined for a bad end even if the film had a lighter tone. O’Connor pumps the brakes when it comes to Jack’s players, making him a fine coach who’s invested in their lives while keeping his personal problems at a reasonable distance. His sin towards the kids is that he’s inconstant and a poor model, but he’s not cruel to them, a vital distinction that would make a wounded and reckless character into a deplorable one. Affleck brings a rugged, sleepy, occasionally volcanic charisma to the role, the kind that can fool a kid but not an adult.
As the balance of the film begin to shift from a who-saved-who sports film towards something better and more meaningful, O’Connor gets more comfortable. One wonders when he drops the sports motif altogether and just makes the harrowing medical drama he so clearly wants to make. As with Warrior, the characters come pre-loaded with painful pasts that could’ve justified their own films, and he covers up the potential for exposition with chilling, unromantic details that must come from real experiences. The most memorable line in The Way Back isn’t about the virtues of a full court press. The basketball scenes are choppy and lack a strong sense of geography or strategy, but quieter and simpler scenes place O’Connor in full control alongside his star. Affleck’s press tour for The Way Back put him in an honest and soul-baring mode rarely seen from a big movie star, and it’s appropriate that this film, with its clear-eyed depiction of personal stasis and retreat, would prompt him to do so. O’Connor, able to get these kind of great performances out of his actors, has a masterpiece in him. This isn’t quite it, but he’s getting closer. B+