THE WINNING SEASON
Directed by: Jim Strouse
Written by: Jim Strouse
Featuring: Sam Rockwell, Margo Martindale, Emma Roberts, Rooney Mara, David Corddry, Shana Dowdeswell, Melanie Hinkle, Emily Rios
Bill is a former basketball star and high-school coach but from the highs of being very successful he has sunk into the obscurity of a busboy in a local restaurant due to his chronic drinking problem. His marriage long-since ended and a daughter who is on the edge of being estranged life have beaten Bill down and it does not look like he is getting back up. Then out of the blue an old friend, now the local high-school principal offers him the job of coaching the side-lined and forgotten girls basketball team. Despite his misgivings and the fact that the team is exactly six girls, one with a broken foot, he somehow perseveres. The girls get better, Bill seems to have overcome his problems but nothing in life is ever as easy as it seems…
I watched this film on Amazon Prime, essentially by doing a ‘Sam Rockwell’ search with the idea that any film with Sam Rockwell in, no matter the topic, would at least be worth watching, even if perhaps it was not the best film you have ever watched.
I was correct.
This is a cliché made into a film. Every problem you have seen in this type of ‘loser makes good’ film with a hopeless sports team is in there – I mean every single one. Bullying, gay issues, horrible boyfriends, alcoholism, ex-wife clashes, family dynamics, racism, winning, losing, it is all thrown into the melting pot. Perhaps there is a bit too much, in fact there is. This small-town basketball team and the individuals involved seemed to have every of life’s mini-mountains to traverse that you might get in a whole lifetime. The only thing that did not happen is someone had to go to war and did not come back. There is absolutely nothing original in this sports-orientated film. Nothing. If you have watched films at any level, you have seen it all before. You do not have to be a basketball fan, I’m not, I’ve seen a live NBA game and I did not like it, or even a sports fan, that is not the point of this film.
These are indisputably the bad points of the film. I could leave it at that, and you would think ‘well I’m not going the bother with that’ and move on, but, like Sam Rockwell’s character Bill, there is something, despite the many faults, that is good and interesting about this.
Therein lies the rub. The story may be hokey, but the acting from Rockwell, Margo Martindale (excellent) and a whole host of young actors, who are now in their thirties, including Emma Roberts and Rooney Mara, elevates this beyond the usual. The girls in the team are shown to be normal people and not a walking cliché of US school kids, which gives the film an authentic turn, the low-level racism, (that is resolved fairly quickly), comes from the black team member, nothing amazing or challenging but enough to pique your interest.
With Rockwell, Martindale, and Rob Corddry you know there is going to be a comic thread running throughout the story, and there is, you will laugh throughout some of the set pieces. Corddry is perfect as the earnest, enthusiastic and honest principal and Martindale, more so, as the no-nonsense steady hand at Rockwell’s Bill’s tiller.
Ultimately the film lives or dies on Rockwell and once again he presents us with a character that you should find unpleasant. He is potty-mouthed and he certainly poor and weak character traits that should not endear you, but Rockwell somehow manages to show deep down, far inside, there is a decent human being.
The alcoholism is not shied away from, and for once in a mainstream movie that is fairly light and easy-going, there is no simple solution. When the film ends, and I’m sorry if this spoils it, Bill is not cured, he is better, but as in real life the alcoholism has not ‘gone away’. His family problems are a little more standard-fair in the denouement but even then, we do not get a tidy resolution.
It is a brave choice by the writer and the director, Jim Strouse, in what is essentially a movie that could be said to be ‘family viewing’ to not tie it all up neat with a bow.
Overall, this is an enjoyable film, it will not be earth-shattering or stay with you until the end of your days, but if you like to see earnest and skilled actors enjoying their job and doing the very best with the material they have and try to present it in a different way this might be the ‘sports-team-comes-good-whilst-everyone-learns-life-lessons’ film for you. There are worse ones out there that is an absolute.
As a footnote, with alcoholism as one of the topics, it is sad to note that it was only eight years later that Shana Dowdeswell, who put in a good show as Bill’s daughter Molly, died from alcohol related problems at the tender age of 33. Yet we still see jokes glorying hangovers and drunkenness every day on TV, in films and in our personal lives.
It might pay to bear this in mind if you ever watch that film and wonder what happened to that young girl who played Molly.