The Way Back (2020)

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
The Way Back (2020) Movie Poster Image
Tons of swearing in mature Affleck alcoholism drama.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 108 minutes

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 5 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 5 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Life can be unfair and difficult, but numbing the pain through substance use will only make life more difficult. Themes of redemption.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Cunningham is deeply flawed yet is trying to find redemption. Diverse cast.


Drinking leads to a car accident and a fall. A few instances of shoving, both on basketball court and during a confrontation.


One kiss. Crude joking between teen ball players and men at a bar. 


Frequent profanity, especially "f--k," often in front of teens. Characters talk about why this behavior has a negative impact and should stop, but it doesn't. Other words include "ass," "a--hole," "balls," "bulls--t," and variations on "s--t," "d--k," and "p---ies" (to imply weakness). "Jesus!" used as an exclamation.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Heavy drinking (beer and hard liquor) by an alcoholic: on the job, in the bar, snuck into cups to look like coffee or water. Main character drinks and drives frequently; eventually, there are consequences. While drinking isn't glamorized, a couple of scenes show camaraderie that revolves around drinking or being a regular at the bar. Main character also smokes cigarettes, mentions with regret his past drug use.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byYome Carter March 6, 2020

Good for older kids but NOT for young kids

I took my 14 year old son to go see this movie because he loves basketball. I heard that there is a lot of swearing in this movie but after the movie I didn... Continue reading
Adult Written byCindy134 March 16, 2020
Teen, 14 years old Written byHi.. March 7, 2020
Teen, 15 years old Written byAKouts May 25, 2021


The movie is alright it does a good job at showing this troubles and the way he goes throw it but its inter plot and story line is a direct copy from Coach Cart... Continue reading

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? 

  • Cunningham seems capable of self-control at times, but certainly not always. Why is self-control an important life skill? What consequences does Cunningham face due to a lack of self-control?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love sports stories

Themes & Topics

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