Dir/scr: James C. Strouse. US. 2009. 98 mins.
Transporting The Bad News Bears into the world of high school girls basketball, The Winning Season is no slam dunk, but stars Sam Rockwell and Margo Martindale score enough points to make the game somewhat interesting. In a dramatic change of pace after his Iraq War film Grace Is Gone, writer-director James C. Strouse has put together an old-fashioned underdog sports comedy with a potty-mouthed, alcoholic coach and a group of young women who don’t care all that much about hoops. It’s likeably diverting even if it’s pretty familiar.
The Winning Season should appeal to the same crowd who embraced The Bad News Bears - both the 1976 original and the 2005 remake. Aimed at indie audiences who know Rockwell from his work in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and Choke, this comedy will probably prove to be too modest for a mainstream crossover but could snag some folks who enjoy the pleasant conventionality of the sports-film genre.
Divorced, drunken, destitute Bill (Rockwell) is approached to teach the local high school girls’ basketball team. A former player of some talent, Bill is hungry to coach again after being fired because of a mysterious scandal in his past, but he has mixed feelings about leading a women’s team - frankly, he thinks it’s beneath him. But slowly, he and the girls come to like one another as they try to rebound from a string of early-season losses.
What’s most striking about Strouse’s film is how straightforward it is. Hardly deviating from the Bad News Bears-meets-Hoosiers template, The Winning Season moves along fairly predictably from scenes of utter sports futility to later moments of triumph. But to be fair, Strouse’s comedy is more realistic than many Hollywood sports movies are when dealing with a mediocre team’s rise to glory. And as opposed to mainstream sports films, The Winning Season focuses on the characters rather than their achievements on the court.
With that said, though, the team members don’t have a lot of personality, despite the amount of time Strouse devotes to their lives. Each girl is a certain type - the pretty one, the sassy black one, the one confused about her sexuality - and the young actresses fail to leave much of an impression.
By comparison, Rockwell and Margo Martindale (as a bus driver Bill recruits to be his assistant coach because he needs someone who knows how girls think) are both quite good at balancing the film’s broad humour with its occasional moments of sentimentality. In some ways, Rockwell’s bad-attitude coach feels like a variation of what Billy Bob Thornton attempted in the Bears remake and Bad Santa, but nonetheless Rockwell’s grumpy misanthrope is a hoot. Meanwhile, Martindale combines sarcasm and sweetness - her assistant coach character may not know anything about basketball, but she’s a lot of fun to have around.
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Daniela Taplin Lundberg