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The Winning Season takes a familiar sports story, that of a curmudgeonly drunken coach forced to coach a team he isn’t interested in, and does something different by setting it in the world of girls high school basketball. Sam Rockwell plays Bill, a former coach turned alcoholic and reduced to bussing tables at the local TGI Friday’s equivalent. His friend, a high school principal shows up and offers him a job doing what he loves, coaching basketball. Unfortunately it’s a girls team.

At first Bill is insulted, hesitant, and then he realizes he doesn’t have any better choices. So he takes the job and reluctantly starts coaching the team, though he doesn’t stop being an asshole. There is redemption for Bill in The Winning Season but the film stays true to his basic character. Even at his best Bill is kind of a drunken, insensitive prick and eventually, the girls on his team come to love him in spite of it.

As for Bill’s team, The Winning Season stays true to the reality of who they are too. So often sports movies involving women try to turn them into carbon copies of men, as if to succeed in sports you must act like a dude. That never happens here. This is a team full of high school girls, and they act like it. Emma Roberts is the group’s defacto leader, and yet she’s has all the insecurities and frailities of every high school girl you’ve ever met. Roberts is turning into a truly talented young actress, unfortunately she has absolutely no athletic ability and throughout the film it’s obvious that they struggled mightily in the editing room to make it look like she can actually run wind-sprints or shoot a basketball. That she can’t is forgivable since the rest of her performance is sharp and, like the film itself, affecting.

In a way The Winning Season is like a more serious, sensitive, realistic version of The Bad News Bears. Bill struggles to scrape his life together while his team struggles to come together on the court. When there’s humor (and there’s plenty of it), it comes from the development of our characters, not as some lame ass joke about child abuse. Writer/director James Strause has actually accomplished something pretty incredible here, creating a film that feels fresh and insightful in a generally pretty played out genre. Give The Winning Season a foul shot, it’s better than your average girls basketball movie.

For an alternate take on The Winning Season read Katey's theatrical review.