02 May 2011

Movies: The Winning Season

The Winning Season (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1293842/

We learn early that Bill is divorced, an ostracized father, directionless, a washed up basketball coach, a drunk, and pretty much all-around failure in life. An old friend of his, a principal at a local high school, asks Bill to coach the school's girl's basketball team. It becomes apparent that Bill was the last choice for the job.  The team consists of six girls - one member is the principal's daughter and another is on crutches, apparently on the team just to have enough girls to field a team.

Stars: Sam Rockwell as Bill the coach, with a great supporting cast of more and lesser-knowns. Rod Corddry (you've seen him in plenty of stuff) plays Principal Terry. Bonus was casting Margo Martindale (Mags from Justified) as Donna the busdriver.  Martindale is a solid actress and plays a character in this film more along the lines of characters she's played in the past.  But if you haven't seen her as Mags in Justified you're seriously missing out.

Directed and written by relative newcomer  James C. Strouse. I've not seen nor heard of any of the three other films he's written, nor the one other film he's directed.  The way the film was shot and edited shows a lot more maturity than the small body of work listed on IMDB for him would lead one to anticipate.

Just by hearing the musical choice for the opening sequence and watching the first scene when Principal Terry first asks Bill to coach the team, you immediately know this film is 1) A sport comedy-drama 2) a feel-good family film. You can almost guess the whole movie start to finish just from knowing the gist of the film.  And yes, it really does follow that formula.  What formula? The "dude has a wrecked life, coaches girl's basketball team, starts getting his shit together, relationship with daughter goes to hell, things go down hill and look completely bleak, things get better in the end" formula. We've seen it plenty of times in other films. There are a couple of surprise story lines embedded in the film I wasn't anticipating, but that's cool. The little curveballs help the film.

But despite being formulaic, this film has something else going for it. For one - the casting. Sam Rockwell is a master at inhabiting his roles. The girls cast for the team - all perform their roles well. Margo Martindale has played similar roles before, but she's a master at playing them and only helps the film be even better. The whole cast works well with each other and really connect in a believable way. That sells it right there. I didn't spot any obvious "acting" happening. Second - the film works as a feel-good film. It does a good job of getting us to care about the characters and what happens with them. Third - it is funny when it is funny without any hint of trying to let the audience know they should find it funny. No winks, no going over-the-top on anything. Fourth - although it revolves around girl's basketball, it really isn't about basketball except as the central driving force that ties the cast together from start through finish. It isn't really a MacGuffin, but almost.

Maybe what helps the film is knowing the story ahead of time and just sitting back to watch it happen because the cast does well. There are some weaknesses in storylines getting touched upon and handled quickly and gently, but it is a feel-good film. And it succeeds at that. 

Honestly the only reason I gave the film a shot is because Sam Rockwell has done so well in past roles and the trailer looked amusing.  I wasn't disappointed. Plus it is a refreshing break from the dark, twisty, thinking fare I tend to gravitate toward.

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