THE MIRACLE SEASON
Director: Sean McNamara
Cast: Erin Moriarty, Helen Hunt, William Hurt, Jason Gray-Stanford, Danika Yarosh, Burkely Duffield
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 4/6/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 5, 2018
This is one of those based-on-a-real-story movies that provides footage of the real people during the credits, and it's also one of those movies that you wish had been a documentary instead. It might not seem like it, but this time around, that second observation actually speaks to the strengths of The Miracle Season. The fictionalized version gives us enough background and frames the story in an effective enough way that we want to know more of the real story.
It's a fairly straightforward tale of an underdog sports team that finds unlikely success against the odds. The odds against the team, though, are ones of unexpected tragedy. Their star player, team captain, and consummate morale-booster dies, leaving the rest of the team in a state of grief that makes it almost impossible for them to even step foot on the volleyball court.
Movies such as this one often avoid legitimate grief, seeing it as a sad ending to an inspirational story or as a generic rallying cry that means more for the playing of the sport than the actual people playing it. This one doesn't. The screenplay by David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda allows its characters to experience the loss of their friend, their teammate, their daughter, and/or the constant bright spot in lives that are filled with problems.
There's a distinct sense of absence here, such as when the team, finally working up the courage to get in a little practice, hit the ball to the position where their missing teammate would be. It was an instinctual move, and as the ball drops the ground, they react with some shock and some embarrassment. How could they not have realized what would happen? It's because, for a moment, they weren't thinking about it. A moment later, once again and with a renewed sense of finality, they have to face the fact that their friend is dead.
For most of this story, director Sean McNamara actually cares about the grieving process here, and it becomes a little disappointing that, at a certain point, the movie more or less drops that understanding. It becomes exactly what it had avoided: a sports story that just happens to feature tragedy.
The setting is a town in Iowa, where everyone knows each other and genuinely appreciates being able to know their neighbors. Kelly (Erin Moriarty) and Caroline (Danika Yarosh), who prefers to be called "Line," have been friends since childhood. The movie throws us into this bond, with idyllic flashbacks to the girls as kids and scenes of them as teenagers, driving around town, talking about volleyball, and Line trying to help Kelly win the attention of Alex (Burkely Duffield), a new boy in town.
We also learn that Line's mother (played by Jillian Fargey) has been in the hospital with cancer. She and Line's father Ernie (William Hurt) want their daughter to realize the severity of what's to come, but Line, an eternal optimist, believes that her mother will recover.
Line is killed while driving a moped to visit her mother. It's a shock, of course, that puts a cloud over the entire town. It's worsened by the immediate death of Line's mother, who gets out of her wheelchair to make the walk to her daughter's casket. The volleyball team, coached by Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), was looking to win a second state championship this season, and now, they struggle to even make it to practice.
Much of the story follows Kelly, Kathy, Ernie, and the rest of the team outside of the eventual games, which McNamara stages with over-the-top gusto (There are plenty of slow-motion shots, and the sound of a struck volleyball explodes like a cracking whip), as if to compensate for the fact that the story isn't really about volleyball. There are tender moments here, as Kelly finally visits Ernie, who has to console her guilt about hiding the motorcycle. Ernie tries to attend games but finds himself sitting in his truck in the parking lot, listening to them on the radio instead. Kathy, an introvert who has retreated even more since a recent divorce, decides to dedicate the season to Line. The stated reason is that the team should win for Line. It's clear that getting the team to play is Kathy's only way of avoiding the reality of the situation. It's a lot of pressure to put on a group of grieving teenagers, but it's equally clear that the entire process is as close to a coping mechanism as they can work out at the moment.
The movie plays these moments and this struggle without the sort of tear-jerking cynicism that one might expect. It cares enough about these characters to allow them their grief, their doubt, their guilt, and their fears of not living up to the impossible expectations that come with winning for Line.
All of it works better than one might expect from such material, and that's why the movie's eventual focus on the games and the progression toward another state championship disappoints. Most of The Miracle Season is sympathetic toward these characters and understanding of what volleyball actually represents for them. Volleyball here is a distraction from reality. That the movie ultimately puts its full weight on the distraction seems like a disservice to the real story.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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