The Winning Season assumes that by making a traditional sports movie about a girl's team instead of boys, it has added something new to the genre and can just proceed as usual from there. But even the most straightforward sports movies need to at least be well made, and the haphazardly directed and edited Winning Season is far from making the cut. Sam Rockwell is never quite comfortable as he attempts a take on Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears-- but, you know, with heart-- and the movie doesn't help him as it fails over and over again to establish a consistent tone. The presence of future Lisbeth Salander Rooney Mara in a substantial supporting role may spark some interest, but this is one long-delayed indie-- it debuted at Sundance 2009-- that was lagging for a reason.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Rockwell plays Bill, a down-on-his-luck single dad working as a dishwasher until the local high school principal (Rob Corddry, miscast and out of place) asks him out of the blue to coach the girl's team. Bill was a successful boy's coach in the past but now is a mess, drunk most of the day and dismissive toward the girls on the team, who to be fair are a pretty ragtag bunch anyway. Led by generically bossy Abby (Emma Roberts) and including a sassy black girl (Shareeka Epps), a boy-crazy airhead (Mara), the gangly principal's daughter (Meaghan Witrit) and a poor neglected Mexican girl (Vanessa Gordillo), the team is sloppy and unmotivated and, wouldn't you know, they're as uninspired by Bill as he is by them.
Then, of course, things start to turn around-- Bill hires bus driver Donna (Margo Martindale) as an assistant coach, the girls learn to get along and work as a team, and that winning season promised by the title starts to take shape. Even as the team improves, though, Bill gets worse, further alienating his teen daughter (Shana Dowdeswell) and drinking more heavily, all leading up to that crucial intervention scene and the triumphant finale. A handful of subplots about the girls are a little interesting-- one girl questions her sexuality, another learns it might not be such a good idea to date older men with mustaches-- but other seem to pop up at random and add nothing to the story. The sloppy plot is matched by murky cinematography that masks the actor's faces and some pretty incoherent editing in the sports scenes-- this team has supposedly improved under Bill's tutelage, but it's impossible to tell the difference between a good game and a bad one until we see the scoreboard.
Rockwell gamely tries to carry things along as the character falls apart and picks himself back up over and over again, but even the actor who's made a career of playing a charming lout is pretty much adrift here. Martindale fares better in her limited but touching role, but many other talented actors like Corddry and Epps are basically ignored by a film that thinks the rote sports story at its center is anything but overly familiar and hackneyed. Writer-director James C. Strouse aims for both the heatstring-tugging power of sports classics like Hoosiers and the kind of gritty indie drama you might normally see Rockwell in, but falls well short of both. We know Mara and Rockwell are already moving on to better things; lets hope everyone else, including Strouse, can manage to do the same.
For an alternate take on The Winning Season read Josh's Sundance Review.