The Winning Season Dir. James C. Strouse

[Lionsgate; 2010]

Styles: sports comedy
Others: Grace Is Gone, Bad News Bears

The Winning Season, in which a drunken wreck turns a ragtag group of kids into disciplined athletes and improves himself in the process, may not score high on originality, but it easily passes the Bechdel test: the outcasts in this movie are an under-practiced girls’ varsity basketball team in small-town Indiana, each with their own specific hurdle to overcome — only two of which concern boys!

With the coach played by hipster hero Sam Rockwell and the film directed by James C. Strouse (whose gulf war weepie Grace Is Gone was far less crass than it could have been), the stage is set for something more than your usual Bad News Bears ripoff, though Strouse’s unsure tone and tentative performances initially threaten to make the film into something less: a familiar tale everyone’s too embarrassed to indulge in. Thankfully, motherly character actress Margo Martindale (playing the team’s bus driver/assistant coach) provides the film some needed warmth, with Rockwell and the girls (led by the chipper Emma Roberts and grumbling Shareka Epps) opening up in her presence.

Whether the actor or his character was initially embarrassed by his surroundings, Rockwell shines once he’s allowed to show both sympathy and cynicism to his charges, a perfect reaction to real problems (daddy issues, class resentment, unappreciative boyfriends, budding lesbianism, etc.) that still seem far less likely to crush these confident young women than the coach’s alcoholism and self-loathing could. Rather than dismissing the problems of teenage girls, the film uses Rockwell’s relapses — not to mention Roberts’ clueless basketball star boyfriend (Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo, enjoyably vain) and his converted garage/bedroom — to remind the audience that one might be luckier to deal with identity crises in high school than afterward, and that team activities unclouded by the promise of fame might be more rewarding than those that are.

No matter how underdeveloped the material (we never really learn why the girls’ team is in such a sorry state compared to other schools in the area), the success of a movie covering a sports season like this mostly boils down to one thing: do you care whether the team will win the big game at the end? Whether The Winning Season deserves to take home any other trophies, its hard to imagine even the most cynical member of this movie’s audience would leave Rockwell and his team before finding out.

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