A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Way Back is a sports drama starring Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, a one-time high school basketball phenom who struggles with alcoholism as an adult. He returns to his high school to coach the team, but this isn't a story aimed at teens. It has mature themes of substance abuse, marital separation, family strife, loss, terminal illness, and redemption. Cunningham curses like a sailor: He says "f--k" constantly, which rubs off on the teens he's coaching. While the story revolves around a Catholic school, the only faith-oriented conversation involves the team chaplain explaining to Cunningham about why it's important for people of faith not to curse. Other language includes "ass," "bulls--t," "d--k," and more, and characters make crass sexual jokes (there's also one kiss). Mostly, the film addresses alcoholism, and Cunningham is shown drinking beer and hard liquor constantly in ways that are typical of those in the throes of the disease: hiding bottles, sneaking alcohol into cups that look like coffee or water, drinking and driving, drinking alone, and getting smashed every night. As in real life, these actions have consequences.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
When the Bishop Hayes High School basketball team suddenly needs a new coach, former star athlete Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is tapped for the job. Despite his own personal demons, his rough-around-the-edges mannerisms, and the team's dismal record, Cunningham finds the players' hidden talents. And he also starts to find THE WAY BACK to healing himself.
Is it any good?
Ben Affleck shows up in this atypical-for-him drama, elevating what would otherwise be a standard-issue sports film. His performance is so outstanding that it brings a new definition to the term "supporting actor": Everyone else in The Way Back is truly just supporting his ability to tell this story about the tragedy of alcoholism. His character, Jack Cunningham, is the kind of person who's often called a "guy's guy" -- and the movie's story will most likely appeal to older men who may better relate to the way Cunningham deals with the painful knocks life has handed him. Those tough moments are likely to squeeze parents' hearts so hard they can't breathe, which might also make them wonder how they'd handle such difficult moments in their own lives.
The Way Back may also be pointing to an effective way forward for faith-based films. It's hard to tell whether this one is or isn't intended to fall into that category. Like the agnostic who attends a Catholic school for the education rather than the dogma, the movie's faith-based elements are entirely character driven, and the setting is more of a means to an end. Unlike many of the movies coming out of the evangelical community, The Way Back doesn't preach, sermonize, or recruit: It just is. Cunningham is a blue-collar worker living in a community of blue-collar workers. He's not striving for perfection or even survival; he's striving to numb the pain. Some of his coaching techniques are the opposite of what the school is teaching. The chaplain prays with the athletes that they play with respect and dignity above all, while Cunningham's mission is to win, even if that means unsportsmanlike conduct. And he swears more like a Hollywood-stereotypical Miami drug dealer than a Long Beach Catholic high school coach. That's who Cunningham is, but for parents, it may be cringey to see the high school kids pick up on his favorite word: "f--k." Cunningham isn't intended to be a role model, and yet he is to these boys -- and therefore might, in a sideways direction, be to your kids. The Way Back is a film worth seeing, just not with them.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about alcoholism. Does The Way Back portray drinking too much as a disease or a choice? Do you think any of the scenes made drinking look like fun or a bonding activity? Are there realistic consequences? Why does that matter?
What genre of film do you think this is? How does it compare to other youth sports dramas? Do you think this qualifies as a faith-based film? Why or why not?
Discuss the use of profanity and "locker room" jokes. How did you feel when the teens start pointedly using Cunningham's curse words in their own speech? Is there ever any benefit to using swear words?
Talk about Cunningham's approach to teamwork compared to Brandon's (or Cunningham's vs. the team chaplain's). What's the point of putting an anti-teamwork attitude in a story? Why is teamwork important? Do you think a player should take over if they're far better than the rest of the team, or is it better to work together, win or lose?
- In theaters: March 6, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: May 19, 2020
- Cast: Ben Affleck, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar
- Director: Gavin O'Connor
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Brothers and Sisters, High School
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout including some sexual references
- Last updated: March 19, 2021
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