Judge Clark Douglas once coached a basketball team. They lost every game.
Our review of The Winning Season (2004), published June 7th, 2005, is also available.
It's time he got back in the game.
There's a surprising level of sweet-natured chemistry between the cast members of The Winning Season, and individual moments that have a kind of rare beauty. But does the exceptional acting compensate for the fact that the screenplay is a wheezy, predictable affair that offers one tiresome cliche after another?
Our central character is Bill (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2), a washed-up former high school basketball coach who now spends his days bussing tables at a local restaurant. One day, the high school principal (Rob Corddry, Hot Tub Time Machine) pays Bill a visit and offers him the opportunity to coach again. Granted, he'll be coaching the girl's junior varsity team, but it's still an opportunity. Bill reluctantly accepts, but is surprised when he discovers that there are only six girls on the team: Abby (Emma Roberts, Nancy Drew), Lisa (Shakeera Epps, Half Nelson), Tamra (Meaghan Witri), Wendy (Rooney Mara, The Social Network), Mindy (Melanie Hinkle) and Kathy (Emily Rios, Men of a Certain Age). Considering that Mindy has a broken leg, only five members of the team can actually play.
Bill initially contemplates giving up on the job and simply retreating back into his life as a busboy. He's got a lot on his mind, and feels that he doesn't need the stress of coaching an underwhelming girl's JV team. After all, he's bickering with his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht, Breaking Bad), struggling to connect with his daughter Molly (Shana Dowdeswell, Mercy) and making a half-hearted attempt at keeping his drinking under control. Over time, Bill begins to grow close to his team and soon regards them as his family.
In a way, The Winning Season feels like every inspirational sports movie and uplifting indie flick ever made crammed into a single 102-minute feature. You've got the story of a coach taking a less-than-talented team and turning them into a team with a legitimate chance of winning the championship. You've got the story of a coach attempting to keep his own demons at bay for the sake of the team. You've got the story of a player who struggles with racism and oppression on a regular basis. You've got the story of a young girl struggling with her identity as a lesbian in a town where such things are generally frowned upon. You've got the story of a dad attempting to make things right with his ex-wife and repair his broken relationship with his daughter. All of these stories are handled in broad, simple strokes, with all of the expected beats and inspirational speeches along the way.
Considering that, it's a small miracle that the film isn't an agonizing viewing experience. It's not a particularly good film, but it's better than it has any right to be. A large part of that is due to the casting of Sam Rockwell, an actor with unique instincts who always finds ways to approach his roles from an intriguing angle. Watch the way Rockwell modulates his performance over the course of the film, beginning at wearily morose and working his way towards cartoonish frenzy (he literally spends the last 20 minutes of the movie shouting at the top of his lungs while wearing hideous clown makeup) without ever breaking character. He soft-sells the inspirational speeches and refuses to overplay the moments of torture and agony; gently undercutting the conventional aspects of his role with his beautifully naturalistic performance.
The members of the basketball team are uniformly excellent, though Emma Roberts gets the most lines and screen time. I was particularly taken with newcomer Meaghan Witri's performance, as Tamra amusingly questions every generic platitude Bill wearily dispenses over the course of the film ("Why would you tell her not to miss? What happens if she misses? You're putting unnecessary pressure on her."). The invaluable Margo Martindale (Million Dollar Baby) does superb work as Bill's kind-hearted assistant coach, while Rob Corddry does a solid job playing against type in an atypically straightforward role.
I really shouldn't have liked The Winning Season; it's a poorly-constructed effort that falls into way too many genre traps. Even so, I can't help but think of it fondly when I consider how well Rockwell and Co. deal with the sub-par script. It falls short of the standard set by the films it imitates (Hoosiers, The Bad News Bears, and Half Nelson come to mind), but it's lovable in a homeless puppy sort of way.
The DVD transfer is fine, though I'm not a huge fan of the film's typical "gritty indie film" look (particularly considering that The Winning Season is essentially fluff with vaguely rough edges). The image is dour, grainy and a little desaturated, emphasizing the lower-income world these characters live in. Darker scenes tend to be a bit murky, but otherwise I don't have much to complain about. The audio is solid, though there are occasions where the bouncy score is cranked up a little high in contrast to the dialogue. The basketball sequences fare pretty well, with immersive sound design and respectable clarity. The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
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