‘The Winning Season’: Nothing but net

August 30, 2010

Sports movies all seem to spring from the same template, most having to do with redemption, learning to forgive and/or believe in oneself and finding the courage and/or confidence to give more than you thought possible when you feel like you’ve got nothing to give.


Geez, just talking about it seems to bring clichés to the surface.


Which is what makes “The Winning Season” (opening in limited release Friday, 9/3/10) such a welcome surprise. Does it follow the formula? Absolutely – as if it were a math equation that director James C. Strouse could solve in his sleep.


And yet Strouse’s script – and, more importantly, his star – jigger inventively with the rhythms, the emotions and, most importantly, the humor in this story about a loser who finds himself coaching girls’ high-school basketball.


The star, in this case, is the invaluable Sam Rockwell, who plays Bill Greaves, an alcoholic former high-school coach first seen bussing tables at a chain restaurant (while eating the leftovers and, when possible, downing an unfinished beer). But an old pal, Terry Schemerhorn (Robb Cordry), shows up to offer him a way out.


Terry is now principal at the local high school – and he needs a last-minute replacement to coach girls’ basketball. He and Bill are old friends – and Terry is well aware of Bill’s drinking. He also knows that, a few years earlier, Bill was fired in the midst of the state tournament, when his boys’ team walked off the court mid-game, rather than play for him.


But, because his own daughter is on the team, Terry is willing to take a chance on Bill. He knows what a handful Bill is – but he also knows how good he can be.


Bill, on the other hand, isn’t convinced that this is a break at all. There are only six girls on the team – and one of them has her foot in a cast. The rest are eager but unschooled, less interested in getting their game faces on than in talking things over. And, as Bill points out, they’re girls.


Gradually, however, they wear each other down. The team (which includes Emma Roberts, Shareeka Epps and future “it” girl Rooney Mara) eventually begins to grasp the concepts that Bill is teaching them – and Bill begins to see them as real players, rather than just a bunch of females he’s been stuck with to collect a paycheck.


Though the film is set in the world of Indiana high-school basketball (which is as much a religion as it is a sport), the comparison is less to “Hoosiers,” a film that is referenced here, than to “The Bad News Bears.” The idea remains the same: When you multiply a negative by a negative, you get a positive.


Not that Bill turns warm and fuzzy once his girls begin to win. Rockwell gives Bill a crust you couldn’t break through with a lobster cracker. But he does get his drinking under control and begins to believe in his players the same way they begin to trust him.


Rockwell gives a performance that’s always funny, never sentimental and yet deeper than the layer of sarcasm that serves as his defense mechanism. Rockwell make Bill a perfectionist who turns self-destructive to act out his impatience with himself. He’s also so totally wrapped up in basketball that he ignores the feelings he might be hurting in pursuit of excellence. He’s an irascible bastard, yet one you can’t help but care about.


The actresses who play his team are equal to Rockwell, neither airheads nor hotheads, but sensible to the point of humor. Part of the joke is that they aren’t nearly as worldly as they think, yet they have Bill’s number from the start.


Don’t get me wrong: “The Winning Season” is far from perfect. As noted, it follows the three-act formula, building to a finale that is silly and far-fetched in its set-up, but which works much better than you’d expect because of the real desperation Rockwell brings to the character.


There are more laughs than you’d imagine possible in “The Winning Season,” despite it being a comedy that seems so familiar in its plotting. This is a small film, too small to inch its way into public awareness without the kind of backing or advertising budget that it undoubtedly lacks. But if you’re looking for a movie that’s both diverting and funny – and you want to see a terrific Sam Rockwell performance – this one is worth finding.


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