Take as many sports clichés as you can think of, put them together in one movie, add in teen drama, and you basically have The Winning Season. You also need to put in the “deadbeat dad” cliché in order to have a complete movie, I guess. You know how this movie plays out, but you’re not necessarily offended by its existence. At least, that’s how I feel about it, as it’s not like I had a bad time while watching it.
The film stars Sam Rockwell as the aforementioned failure of a father, this time going by the name of Bill. He and his ex-wife barely speak, his daughter hates spending time with him, he drinks more than any person should, and despite former prominence as a basketball player and coach, he’s currently doing an awful job at bussing tables. Luckily, one of his friends is a high school principal, so he gets offered a job to coach girls basketball. Reluctantly he accepts it and finds out that the girls, of which there are only a handful, are not particularly good at their chosen sport. He will have to coach them to the promised land, all while overcoming his own personal obstacles.
You’ve seen this movie before. You’ve probably seen it better before. You’ve seen a more dramatic version, and you’ve probably seen a funnier version. And some areas of my body are telling me that because there are better ones out there, I should dislike The Winning Season and claim that it has no reason to exist. To some extent, that is how I feel. But I can also come up with some reasons for it to exist, and why you might just want to see it.
The first is a matter of appeal. If you’re a teenage girl who might like basketball, there isn’t a movie like this one for you. This is a sport that gets little respect in most nations on the planet — especially at the high school level — and a not-bad film highlighting it can’t hurt. Besides, how many of these movies are made with any sort of focus spent on female athletics? And how many do it, and do it seriously, without a sense of self-aware irony? I can’t think of many, but The Winning Season is one of them.
You can even forget that it’s girls basketball, and instead think of the film simply as one of the more accurate portrayals of high school athletics you’ll see in films. The characters don’t go from terrible to skilled, that one character who did nothing good all season doesn’t suddenly become the hero, etc. It also doesn’t end on the note you’d expect, even if it does all come down to that one last shot.
In addition, the film actually takes the offensive and has the gall to call out Bill (and anyone who takes a similar position to him), on many of the comments he makes. “Watch the big girl,” he tells his players, at which point he is told that treating women like that is what leads to eating disorders. His misogyny is also called into question. He also calls another character out on racism. It’s both funny and a little sad that a movie like this has to be the one to take that kind of stand. I applaud it for that. For a teen movie, there are some dark-ish themes at play here.
There’s also the fact that Sam Rockwell is the lead, and — wait, are there people out there who don’t think any Sam Rockwell performance isn’t worth seeing? Like, are there people who either aren’t aware of how great Rockwell is in almost any role he’s taken on? Because that’s pretty much the truth. I don’t think I’ve seen him phone in a performance, and true-to-form, he’s a lot of fun to watch here as the alcoholic, deadbeat dad who is also a great basketball coach and decent person after he becomes charmed by the girls. Spoiler alert.
It’s also a competently shot, edited and written film. The clichés are all there, but they’re executed about as well as they need to be. The film is overly sentimental, but sometimes that’s okay, isn’t it? You like to feel good with these kinds of movies, and you’ll feel pretty darn good after watching The Winning Season. With this comes a certain amount of cheese, but if you get into the story, which I did, you tend to overlook that. The cynics won’t, but that’s their problem.
If there’s one thing The Winning Season could have used, it was more time spent with the characters who actually play the basketball games. There are some good young actors here — Emma Roberts, Rooney Mara, Shareeka Epps, and Emily Rios, among others — but they get so little to do that it’s almost criminal. There’s also not a whole lot of focus on the basketball games themselves; they’re secondary and necessary for the plot, but the human drama is far more important to the movie.
The Winning Season isn’t really a great film, but you know what? It’s good enough. It does enough right to potentially warrant a watch, especially if you’re the age, or approaching the age, of some of its main characters. It has a strong leading performance from Sam Rockwell, it touches on some issues and themes that need addressing, it has a realistic portrayal of high school athletics, and it gives a sport that often goes unnoticed its own movie. It’s a mix of clichés, but clichés aren’t necessarily a bad thing. This film uses them well, and I wound up liking it.