We love comeback stories. Whether they’re about athletes beating the odds or people overcoming addiction, illness and the like, we love seeing positive change. But we forget that this change isn’t permanent.

There’s a notion in our culture that if you hit rock bottom, you can get back up and become so strong that you never fall down again. We see this in rehab reality shows and infomercials for weight-loss programs. But the truth is that rock bottom is actually an abyss, and you can keep descending into its depths. Comeback stories aren’t as neat and tidy as they are in TV shows and movies. We see people overcome these incredible obstacles on screen and we think, “Then they lived happily ever after.” And we beat ourselves up when we don’t mirror that, when we don’t pick ourselves up and stay up.

Stories tell us that we have to miraculously, and permanently, change by a certain deadline — and to our detriment, we don’t often realize that it’s actually a matter of taking one day at a time. 

The Way Back understands that reality, and its star, Ben Affleck, knows it even more intimately. Shortly before the production started, he relapsed and entered rehab a second time for alcoholism. He brought a basketball with him as a reminder of the sports drama he wanted to make. He was discharged from rehab one day before the film started shooting. 

Affleck brings a raw vulnerability to his performance as Jack Cunningham, a former high-school basketball star who starts coaching at his alma mater while reeling from divorce and drowning his sorrows with booze. Of course, Bishop Hayes is an underdog team, having not made the playoffs since Jack’s glory days on the court. Early on, the joy of the film lies in watching Jack cuss off refs and rival coaches, thus clashing against the parochial school’s Christian values. 

“With all the horrible stuff going on in the world, do you really think God gives a shit what I say?” he asks the team’s chaplain. This is the first hint of a bitter mindset that the film goes on to explore further. When it does, you may think, “Oh, come on, isn’t this movie sad enough?” We get a peek into Jack’s painful past that explains his anger at the world. It’s a punch to the gut that may seem contrived at first, but it ultimately adds to the idea that life can deal an overwhelming number of bad hands. It’s not about dodging those deals; it’s about facing them. 

Jack numbs his pain with vodka during the day and beer at night. Director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby create a sense of authenticity by bringing out the little details of Jack’s daily alcohol rituals. A particularly memorable scene shows his nightly routine of grabbing a frosty beer from the freezer and putting one from the fridge in there so it’s ready to go when he’s craving another cold one. 

Through seemingly mundane moments like this, the film makes you question your own vices. Can you live without that bottle of wine that waits at home after work? Are you facing the hand you’ve been dealt, or are you turning your back on it again and again? 

You may notice that this review hasn’t touched on basketball very much, and that’s because the film doesn’t either. With Miracle and Warrior under his belt, O’Connor is no stranger to sports dramas, and he brings an intense clarity to the basketball scenes. But the film ultimately treats the game as a catalyst for Jack’s recovery. Yeah, there’s the corny sports metaphor for him “getting a second shot,” but it feels organic. In fact, the film subverts many of the expectations you have from this genre. Despite what the trailer leads you to believe, there aren’t any inspirational locker room speeches, and Jack doesn’t redeem himself with “the big game” at the end. 

This film may not mark Affleck’s redemption either. He could get knocked down again. But, as this film and his life show, he knows how to get back up.