STUDIO: Lionsgate
MSRP: $18.99
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 105 Minutes

  • Theatrical Trailer

The Pitch

A League of Their Own 2: Hoop Dreams

The Humans

Director: James C. Strouse

Writer: James C. Strouse

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Emma Roberts, Rob Corddry, Emily Rios, and Rooney Mara.

"I'm sorry, Chet, but this is creeping me out now. You look about 5."

The Nutshell

Walking disaster area Bill (Rockwell) is fed up with life. Booze and a bad temper have reduced this once promising basketball protégé to a bitter dish washer. Then, a rare glimmer of hope appears for Bill in the form of local principal Terry (Corddry) who invites his old buddy to coach their girls’ varsity team. Sounds like a perfect fit for a faded baller, except for the fact that Bill’s not great with people. Especially, women. So much so that his ex-wife Stacey (Jessica Hecht) cuts his daughter Mollie (Shana Dowdeswell) out of Bill’s life wherever possible. Can Bill beat the bottle and get it together at long last? Does a masked killer like dark enclosed spaces?

The Lowdown

Interior: Gymnasium – Night. The Big Game. Minutes until match-time. Coach pulls his team together. Coach, all 5 weary feet of him. An almost was. A figure of fun even for the Has-been’s, yet here he is giving these youngsters their pep talk. And they listen. They listen hard and they listen well because he loves the game. He loves it more than all of them put together. They listen because he’s all they’ve got and they need all the help they can get. That and the eyes. Those wild fireball eyes daring their targets to look away. Respect. All the baggage and bruises in the world couldn’t take that away. He inelegance is matched only by his clarity: win… win… win.

Corny, isn’t it? That’s The Winning Season on paper: a by the numbers story of a washed-up misfit who turns his life, and the fortunes of a girls’ high school basketball team, around. It sounds like nothing we haven’t seen countless times before. And better. Indeed, there isn’t a great deal new about the teacher/student set-up or its rather earnest tone of wide-eyed youth dreaming of life beyond suburbia. This isn’t Mr. Holland’s Air Max, though. Once the genre groundwork’s in place, James C. Strouse (Grace Is Gone) throws off the sports movie shackles and places his focus squarely on those passing the rock, not the rock itself. Imagine if Casey Affleck had actually coached the team in Lonesome Jim instead of just moping around with Liv Tyler and you’re not far off. The result is less a rabble-rousing “go team!” sports movie than it is a character study wearing a jersey. Sure, there are plenty of exciting action beats filled with swooshing three-pointers, urgent timeouts, and squeaky sneakers, but they’re more the window dressing than the main attraction.

"Alright ladies, first one to touch the baseline gets the female lead in the new Robert Pattinson vehicle!"

Sam Rockwell is rightly regarded as one of the finest character actors around. Equally adept with comedy (Galaxy Quest) and drama (Moon) he brings a dignity to outsiders that could so easily have become bland archetypes. Coach Bill Greaves is a prime example. Plenty of actors would have read the words “abrasive alcoholic” on their script and took a half day, convinced their work was cut out for them. Not Rockwell. Downplaying the tragedy of Bill’s isolation and familial strife only amplifies his destructive impact. It’s a masterstroke, making Bill’s last big push to do something with his life all the more engrossing. Considering the obvious joy basketball gives him, not to mention his talent for the game, it’s tragic watching Bill drink himself into oblivion. His struggle isn’t one of teary monologues or “I coulda been a contender” style platitudes. It’s a metaphor for the whole cold turkey spectrum. To top it off, he drinks, smokes, and objectifies women around his team to amusing effect.  Even when espousing the joys of an “onion butt” (because it “brings tears to your eyes”) around children, Rockwell makes staying likable look awfully easy. Without his affability, the film would have been nothing more than a lighthearted, almost twee, indie sports comedy with delusions of grandeur.

The rag-tag team is certainly no stranger to sports movies. It should come as no surprise that a firebrand, a problem child, and a gifted outsider all number amongst the starting lineup of the Plainview Lady Chargers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A little convention’s to be expected in films like this; to complain about it would be to bemoan the loss of a nasty bimbo in a slasher flick. Thankfully, everyone involved understands this and has fun with the familiarity, even finding sly means of subversion here and there. Rooney Mara (The Social Network) shows what’s turning her into a very familiar face. Wendy is essentially “the quiet one” of the group, a cypher to bolster those around her and deliver a few wry one-liners. There isn’t a great deal there to work with, but Mara lends the role a subtle vulnerability which makes her stand out in every scene she’s in. Wendy’s involvement with a sleazy older man – and his eventual comeuppance at the hands of Bill – is far and away the strongest of the film’s rather underdeveloped sub-plots.

"Did I say Robert Pattinson? I meant Robert Z'Dar."

Abbie’s (Emma Roberts) stuttering romance with Damon (Connor Paolo) the air-headed star of the Plainview boys’ team takes the wooden spoon in that department. An über-popular jock too self-absorbed to attend his girlfriend’s games is a cliche too far (see also Rob Corddry’s goofball principal.) Like Mara, Roberts is popping up all over the place. Unlike her co-star who’s already emerged from her sister Kate’s shadow, the actress has got a long way to go before she can do the same with her aunt Julia. A few iffy deliveries aside, Roberts turns Abbie from a snippy brat into a convincing, likable team captain. Strouse juggles each of the girls’ personal journeys well so that, by the time they’re huddled together shouting “GO! FIGHT! WIN!” in tandem before a game, their bond is sealed. An hour and a half isn’t a lot of time to sell this arc, but some fine supporting work from Margo Martindale (Million Dollar Baby) as the team’s lesbian coach driver Donna and Meaghan Witri as Tamra, Principal Terry’s more than curious daughter, go a long way.

While it doesn’t break new ground, The Winning Season transcends its familiarity with a charming blend of comedy and drama. The relationships between team-mates, their families, and coaching staff might frustrate those looking for a straightforward sports picture, but it’s rewards are far greater than many of its testosterone-fuelled peers. Fun, not every foul or free-throw, is the plan of attack here. It’s a film about responsibility and the power of sport – any sport – to bond people in a way quite unlike anything else. The film’s warmth shows cynics these games aren’t as inaccessible as they might appear to outsiders, though it’s shrewd enough to juxtapose the darker side with the light. Sports can certainly drain people mentally as well as physically, although it’s surprising how easily one pro can make up for many cons. As Bill learns over the course of the film, defeat doesn’t make you a loser; refusing to play the game when there’s so much to gain does.

John Waters' adaptation of "Madman" was the very definition of loose.

The Package

With only a theatrical trailer and English or Spanish subtitles on offer, the supplemental section of this disc is extremely disappointing. The Winning Season is nothing to be embarrassed about as far as lower profile pictures go so it’s a shame this release gives it the skeleton in the closet treatment. It’s hard to argue with the disc’s presentation quality, though. Only a modicum of possibly deliberate “arty” graininess shows up now and again in widescreen and the 5.1 sound boosts the jangly guitars during game scenes nicely.

It’s also a pity the final cover for this disc turned out to be the one pictured above instead of this alternate poster image. Not only is it a superior piece of artwork, it’s undoubtedly a truer reflection of the end product’s “indie” vibe. It’s a minor complaint, granted, and probably a deliberate attempt to rope in exactly the kind of viewers who’ll be disappointed. That said, I’d rather not be led to believe the redemption tale I’m about to watch is actually a movie about a Snickers wrapper… even if it does star Sam Rockwell.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars