Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE MIRACLE SEASON
It’s a tale that’s almost too good to be true: a sports team, down in the dumps after an immeasurable tragedy, rises like a phoenix from the ashes of despair. Life generally doesn’t write stories this staggeringly rousing, human and inspirational, but here we are. This is something that really happened. The producers of HBO’s REAL SPORTS (the best show on HBO, if you ask me) took notice of its far-reaching potential back in 2014, when they televised the saga of West High’s women’s volleyball team. It was a segment that reduced its viewers to puddles of tears in 14 minutes flat (me being one of those people). Four years later, director Sean McNamara’s feature-length version, THE MIRACLE SEASON, aims to do the same. However, the dramatization isn’t nearly as effective as the powerful punchy potency of the original cable sports show segment.
Seventeen-year-old Caroline “Line” Found (Danika Yarosh) is the perpetually positive, perky star setter on the Iowa City West High School volleyball team. She’s the anchor of her championship-winning squad. And this outgoing gal eats adversity for breakfast, facing every challenge without fear. She’s practically a saint, getting good grades, having a loving relationship with her father Dr. Ernie (William Hurt), and visiting her terminally sick mom Ellyn (Jillian Fargey) in the hospital. She brings out the best in everyone – particularly her blonde bestie Kelley (Erin Moriarty), who like most, suffers from a crisis of confidence. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes, leaving Kelley, their teammates and stoic Coach Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan (Helen Hunt) to piece together their shattered dreams, hoping to follow Line’s guiding spirit if they want another shot at all-state glory.
The screenplay practically writes itself – and yet it didn’t here. David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda add too many convoluted ingredients to the broth, overwhelming the straight-forward narrative about one team’s inspirational resolve and determination. The tidbits about Coach Brez’ recent divorce aren’t addressed beyond her introductory scene. Dr. Ernie’s loss of spirituality after the deaths of his daughter and wife (who died seven days after her daughter) is dealt short shrift. It comes across as a manufactured device to add depth when the filmmakers only deal with it very superficially. They also add unnecessary inner-team conflict delivered in a tropey, rote manner, presenting a fissure between Kelley and her teammates. In real life, it was one of her teammates that encouraged her to take the setter spot. The spirit of sisterhood is dulled. The chaste, sunlit romance between Kelley and cute, new-boy-next-door Alex (Burkely Duffield) doesn’t amount to much, merely functioning as a shrewd way to get teen girls’ butts in theater seats. It’s actually distracting how misguided a love interest is here, since the focus should be on Line’s grief-stricken inner circle. Worse, the sense of this community coming together, treating the games as a safe space to grieve and support each other is noticeably lacking. That should be this film’s undercurrent. Yet all the genuine sentiment is breezed on through in favor of sappy, syrupy sentimentality that doesn’t ring true.
While the filmmakers work in “show-not-tell” details about Line’s sneakers emblazoned with her mother’s name on them, they leave out other emotionally-saturated real-life niceties – like placing her sneakers underneath a dedicated chair on the court for every game, or the pennies the team kept finding in threes, or how Neil Diamond’s crowd-stirring anthem “Sweet Caroline” came to be sung at matches (on both sides and by all the schools’ teams). The “Live Like Line” tee shirts didn’t come late in the game as this film posits, but early on in the season with requests pouring in game by game.
What’s further disappointing is even though Line’s legacy manages to shine through this biopic, instilling audiences with a heartfelt message about kindness and the strength of powerful women, a less paint-by-numbers film was left in the locker room.
THE MIRACLE SEASON opens on Friday, April 6.