A film review by Craig J. Koban May 16, 2018

THE MIRACLE SEASON  jj
½ 

2018, PG, 101 mins.

 

Danika Yarosh as Caroline 'Line' Found  /  Erin Moriarty as Kelly  /  William Hurt as Ernie Found  /  Helen Hunt as Kathy Bresnahan  /  Nesta Cooper as Lizzie Ackerman

Directed by Sean McNamara  /  Written by Elissa Matsueda and David Aaron Cohen

 

 

 

 

There's a part of me that feels awfully bad reviewing and being critical of a film like THE MIRACLE SEASON, seeing as it has awfully noble minded intentions and is a fact based sports drama that's steeped in personal tragedy.  

The film takes its true story narrative from the unbelievable winning streak of the Iowa City West High School girl's volleyball team - the West High Trojans.  Back in 2011 they persevered after the death of their star player to go on an win their second state championship in a row.  Despite unbelievable and Herculean odds - and all while grieving over the loss of their captain - this team channeled there personal loss into an inspirational rallying cry to win in honor of her memory.  THE MIRACLE SEASON is a really hard film to fault on a level of its powerful and universal themes. 

I only wished, though, that this sports film didn't cross off so many obligatory formulas and clichés on the genre list while relaying its worthwhile and genuinely uplifting story.  Although THE MIRACLE SEASON does a reasonably good job of capturing the emotional devastation of this team's loss - not to mention what it took for this team to overcome it and ultimately win  - the paint-by-numbers scripting here does this story no favors.  Stale and overused sports drama conventions sometimes rule the day here and often override some of the film's more gut wrenching moments, which is further done a disservice by how little character development there is on display and by how sanitized the proceedings feel.  Again, the wholesomeness of THE MIRACLE SEASON is charming to a degree and the underlining spiritual journey of this grief stricken team absolutely deserves big screen treatment, but not at the expense of being so maudlin in its overall game plan. 

 

 

At one point it seemed that the West High Trojans were indeed an unstoppable volleyball force to be reckoned with, thanks largely to their 17-year-old leader, high school senior Caroline "Line" Found (played with infectious vitality of spirit by Danika Yarosh), who seems ready to rally her teammates for just about any challenge to come, both on and off the court.  Her bestie in Kelly (Erin Moriarty) does not posses her level of athletic skill, but her enthusiasm for the sport is as palpable as Caroline's, and the two seem like an inseparable pair in every facet of life.  Erin and everyone else at the high school have to deal with the horror of losing her after a terrible accident while traveling unprotected on a Moped.  Not only does this news emotionally cripple Erin, but Caroline's parents are obviously hit the hardest, especially the father (William Hurt), who has to deal with a terminally ill wife on top of losing his daughter. 

Hope seems all but lost for the volleyball team, seeing as Caroline was both an adored student and a fiery competitor, leaving her unique brand of unwavering optimism a hard blend to copy.  No one on this team - let alone most in the school as a whole - thinks this team will have any chance of a state championship again, let alone playing any more games during the season.  The team's coach, Kathy Bresnahan (nicely underplayed by Helen Hunt), thinks that the best therapy to get over Caroline's death - and the best manner to honor her legacy and memory - is for the girls to pull up their socks, wipe away their collective tears, and do whatever it takes to win the necessary 15 games in a row required (after forfeiting many games due to not showing up) to make it the playoffs and attain championship gold.  Predictably, none on the team have any drive whatsoever to go on, especially since all of them are still processing their shared grief.  Erin, on the other hand, is given the unlikely promotion to team captain and soon begins to bolster up enough self-confidence and commitment to motivate her teary-eyed teammates for the difficult task to come. 

The emotionally grounded performances by the ensemble cast works relative overtime to help elevate THE MIRACLE SEASON above its many deficiencies.  Erin Moriarty gives a graceful and sincere performance showing her character's evolution from being a near sports washout and into a bona fide leader and grittily focused competitor.  Helen Hunt also gives an equally soulful performance in her somewhat underwritten role of the coach that has to balance being a battle hardened taskmaster that utilizes tough love tactics alongside being a sensitive mentor figure to these damaged girls.  And the great William Hurt has this innate and thanklessly ability to bring a soft spoken gravitas to just about any film he occupies.  A lesser actor would have utterly phoned it in as this quiet spoken, but appealingly crusty mannered father/widow, but Hurt dials down his performance to the point that he feels like an authentically drawn character beleaguered by loss on multiple sides.  It's one of those cases where a veteran presence of a virtuoso actor can perform miracles with a character that's not particularly compelling on the page.

The problem I had with THE MIRACLE SEASON is not that it wasn't dramatically pure enough (you truly do feel this entire community's sorrow after loss), but rather with how squeaky clean and conflict free the character dynamics and storytelling are here.  The teammates themselves seem almost impossibly big hearted and cooperative with one another during their winning streak odyssey and very little attempt is made here at delving deeper into their fragile psychological mindsets.  Many of the girls that seem to occupy this team also seem so achingly sweet mannered and congenial that you're kind of left believing that the real life Trojans didn't have such a crisis free level of sportsmanship and shared focus.  And for as good as Hunt is in her dime-a-dozen role of the poker faced high school coach with the hidden heart of gold, there's actually very little depth to her character, nor is she given much back story embellishment.   More often than not, the coach gives melodramatic speeches and pep talks when not pointing at her players and screaming "YES!" when they achieve excellence on the court...and very little else.  She's an oddly vague abstraction here in the film. 

All we are left with are the volleyball matches themselves, which are choreographed with limitless gusto by director Sean McNamara, albeit with perhaps too many overused stylistic conceits and definitely too many pop tunes punctuating the soundtrack to underscore key scenes (the matches feel like music video montages and not grueling physical contests of grit and determination by the respective teams).  There are other things that don't work well, like an on-again, off-again voiceover narration track featuring Erin that appears and disappears at will, and a one-note boyfriend character for her that adds virtually nothing to the plot.  THE MIRACLE SEASON ends with archival footage that accompanies the end credits that shows just how much this school and the citizens around it bolstered up and supported this team.  It also made me feel that this remarkable tale of real athletic domination and overcoming horrendous roadblocks would have been best served in a documentary.  THE MIRACLE SEASON serves up one whopper of a moving story to tell, but it misses the mark and strays the ball out of bounds when it comes to execution.   

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