Cinema Station

Picture of the Week: The Winning Season (2009) | May 1, 2012

This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

The Winning Season (2009)

There are good movies being forgotten left and right, especially nowadays when they can’t compete with the blockbusters in the multiplexes and barely have an audience left at rental stores. The Winning Season is one of those.

It’s a basketball movie about an alcoholic (Sam Rockwell) who used to coach a boy’s team but because of anger issues was fired and works as a bus boy until an old friend gives him a chance to coach the girl’s high school team. Sound familiar? It has quite a few similarities to the great basketball film Hoosiers. Rockwell’s character is a sort of composite of Gene Hackman’s angry coach and Dennis Hopper’s drunk disgraced father. And the filmmakers are conscious of the relationship as Rockwell asks his girl’s before the big game, “Haven’t you seen Hoosiers?”

Regardless of these similarities, The Winning Season feels original and it is thanks mainly to the low-key approach director James C. Strouse takes to the material. First, he avoids creating a typical sports movie, specifically with how he handles the games. In many ways, these scenes feel like we are sitting in the stands at our local high school watching a sister, daughter, or girlfriend play. He avoids rousing montages with inspirational music and instead we observe small, intimate moments between the players and their coach. He also does not over-dramatize Rockwell’s alcoholism. One scene that rings true features the coach brought home by his players because he can’t drive. They get a preview of his life and when they start asking questions about his estranged wife and child, he quietly asks them to go until they comply. Another poignant scene features Rockwell having dinner alone after a big victory. He starts to flirt with the waitress who is responsive but after one too many celebratory drinks, he comes on a little hard and pushes her away.

Rockwell’s performance holds the film together. It is hard, good understated work that actors like Edward Norton and Christian Bale would have over-played and ruined. On the other hand, Rockwell just plays a regular guy with problems. He learns to appreciate the girls on his team as he realizes they are all he really has to be good for. This actor (who turned in another dynamic performance in 2009’s Moon) deserves more recognition than he’s received and deserves to be playing our strongest leads instead of supporting in films like Iron Man.

The cast of girls on the team (including a young Rooney Mara, now getting much attention for her role in the American Dragon Tattoo film) are also a highlight in the film. Teenage issues such as lesbianism and boyfriend drama are played well and the truth these girls create on screen deserves credit.

It isn’t a perfect film. Some of the humor does not work and certain plot points lack strength. But The Winning Season is a good movie, solid and entertaining. And these days, that is something to behold.

-TM

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