There’s No Crying in Basketball
Film Review: “The Winning Season”
A refreshingly unsentimental sports comedy about a down-on-his-luck former star coach whose last chance at redemption is a high school girls’ basketball team with no chance in Hell.
The 2009 sports comedy, The Winning Season, may not rise to the ranks of A League of Their Own or that fabled classic, Hoosiers (which is actually referenced in this film) although it somehow manages — for a little picture — to mine the best themes from both those Hollywood classics, and to do it without pretending it’s more than it is. And quite frankly, if not for the winning performance of its lead, Sam Rockwell, who turns an almost slacker script into gold, this hidden gem might have just faded into inglorious obscurity along with so many stale sports stories who will forever sit out the season on the bench.
Rockwell, one of the most under-appreciated actors of his generation, is Bill Greaves, a divorced deadbeat Dad with a drinking problem whose glories as a once-legendary men’s basketball coach reside squarely in his rearview mirror. Presently employed as a dishwasher at a chain restaurant, Bill is surprised when his old friend Terry (well played by Rob Corddry), now the principal of a local high school, shows up to throw him a lifesaver, an opportunity to return to the game he loves by accepting a job as the coach of Plainview High’s beleaguered girls’ varsity team, all six members of the Plainview Chargers. Bill is treading water in his own life, dealing badly with a messy divorce and failing miserably as a father to his own basketball-playing daughter (who attends a rival school.)
Bill begrudgingly accepts the position, realizing almost immediately he’s way in over his head but blaming his disconnect with the girls on the single proven fact of his life: Women Hate Him. The team consists of a motley crew more or less led by Emma Roberts with support from Rooney Mara (pre Dragon Tattoo) and a nice turn from character acting legend Margo Martindale who plays a bus driver conscripted as an assistant coach (despite having absolutely no knowledge of the game). There is one natural star among them, a Mexican-American player named Cathy who — despite her real talent — is virtually ostracized from the group over vaguely formed anti-immigrant sensibilities. This disparate group is as far from a team as one can imagine. Bill knows it. They know it. But almost against his better judgement, (and in between a few binge drinking setbacks) Bill can’t stop himself from being the natural coach he is and was meant to be. When the Chargers actually start winning some games, no one is more surprised than the team itself. Now the challenge will be how to keep their eye on the prize and see if they can actually create a winning season from the joke they used to be.
The Winning Season was written and directed by James C. Strause, a native of Indiana who clearly understands the almost mythological power of basketball in that State. As mentioned earlier, this script actually references the 1986 close-to-perfect basketball film starring Gene Hackman, Hoosiers, whose David & Goliath theme is mirrored here. As well, we are reminded of that other classic, A League of Their Own in which another gruff, heavy drinking male coach finds himself adrift when trying to lead an all-female team of baseball players during WWII. But what sets The Winning Season apart from most hackneyed, inspirational sports movies of recent years is its light touch with a number of serious themes of modern life: broken families; alcoholism; sexism; xenophobia; and homophobia. But ever so lightly, as the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and always stays in its lane as a reliably hilarious comedy with just the right amount of heart. The ball never goes out of bounds.
The Winning Season is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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