Sometimes I can understand why a movie gets buried with a quiet direct-to-video release. Relentless corporate satire and explicitly, repeatedly calling “Joe Sixpack” a society-destroying idiot naturally led to Idiocracy‘s sad fate. The David Schwimmer/Simon Pegg vehicle Big Nothing is a very funny, pitch-black comedy about hateful people doing awful things for selfish reasons, which makes it a tough sell for the large segment of people who can’t find the humor in their actions. This doesn’t mean I agree with the decision to bury a handful of gems in order to make room for Shrek 3D, but I get it. Distributing a movie theatrically is still a costly endeavor with a number of pitfalls (topping the list: an unwillingness of theatre chains to exhibit the movie you’re peddling), so if it’s a tough-sell, you might as well try to recoup your earnings on DVD.
Try as I might, I can’t see the logic in The Winning Season heading to DVD after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “theatrical run” for awards consideration. A funny, dark-edged sports comedy featuring Sam Rockwell as a cantankerous alcoholic coach and a plethora of rising stars (Emma Roberts, Emily Rios, Rooney Mara, Shareeka Epps) and comedy ringers (Rob Corddry, Margo Martindale). In a world where trailers frequently mislead audiences into thinking they’re seeing one thing (a good movie) when they’re seeing another (a shitty movie), how could they not cut a trailer making this look like an innocuous teen comedy along the lines of the execrable Easy A? There’s nothing wrong with tricking people into seeing a better movie than the one they think they’re seeing. That’s what Whip It did. Although nobody saw it—but that’s different. People actually like basketball.
Rockwell plays Bill, who we first meet as he finishes off a half-glass of warm beer and a plate of leftover cheese sticks while bussing tables at a family-style eatery in rural Indiana. His old friend, Terry (Rob Corddry), has tracked him down. He’s the principal at Plainview High, their alma mater, and he remembers Bill as the star player on their varsity basketball team. He wants Bill to coach the girls’ team. Bill protests, noting that girls hate him. He’s not wrong. For reasons only explained by his present behavior, Bill’s ex-wife (Jessica Hecht) openly disdains him. Their teenage daughter, Molly (Shana Dowdeswell), follows suit. They see him as he really is: an alcoholic loser clinging to youthful glory and willful ignorance instead of growing up and getting his act together.
Terry refuses to take no for an answer, convincing Bill he has assembled a strong team in need of a winner like him to guide them to the state championships. Bill finally agrees, quitting his job on the spot and stealing a framed photo of Bobby Knight surrounded by restaurant kitsch. The following day, he meets the team, a group of disinterested girls who barely know how to dribble. With the exception of Kathy (Rios)—a phenom ostracized by the others more because of her Mexican heritage than her enviable skills—the girls have joined the basketball team to avoid going home. They’d rather send text messages or do homework than play.
Bill won’t stand for this. He tries to quit in disgust a handful of times, but Terry convinces him to stay on despite his growing impatience (“I told you, girls hate me!” “It’s not just girls.”). His precarious financial situation and Terry’s misguided faith leaves Bill with no choice but to mold these girls into a halfway decent team. After their first, comically devastating loss, the girls realize they’d rather be part of a winning team than a losing one. The combination of Bill’s motivating tactics—which, frankly, aren’t dissimilar from most high school coaches, despite his abrasive, foul-mouthed demeanor—and the girls’ desires to improve cause the team to slowly go from extreme losers to competitive losers to actual winners.
At its heart, though, The Winning Season is hardly a sports movie. It’s a film about a loser trying to earn the respect of his disapproving daughter. He doesn’t earn it by teaching her basketball, or even really having anything to do with her. In fact, when he forces the custody issue one weekend, she runs away from him—not to party with friends, but to go back home, where she wants to be. This devastates Bill and sends him on an alcoholic binge, which not surprisingly has a detrimental effect on his coaching. All he wants in life is for Molly to like him, but he’s a drunk and kind of a bad person. He doesn’t care about anything or anyone, and his alcoholism causes him to alienate the one person he wishes he cared about.
Through his coaching—she plays basketball at a rival school—Molly sees the shades of Bill that we get to see. Instead of seeing him as a drunken monster (which, at his worst, he is), she starts to see him as a deeply flawed person with a few redeeming qualities. Bill, meanwhile, starts to care about the girls on his team as people and becomes an unlikely source of fatherly advice. This slow, subtle transformation never feels like a sentimental cheat. Writer/director James C. Strouse lets the characters and relationships develop naturally, and also allows Bill to give horrible advice when asked. He’s clueless, but eventually everyone comes to realize his heart is in the right place, which is maybe more important than his brain being in the right place.
Another enormous strength of The Winning Season is its focus on the players. Lesser sports movies—of which there are many—wouldn’t take the time to make the girls into anything more than stereotypes. With a few exceptions (like Mindy, the girl on crutches who can only stand on the sidelines, smiling), Strouse gives them each well-defined, complicated personalities that mostly defy expectations. He also never forgets they’re girls trying to navigate the difficult social strata known as high school, entering uneasy relationships with obnoxious boys, coming into their own as people (instead of merely parroting what they hear from their parents, as Lisa (Epps) starts the film doing), and turning to the basketball court as a comforting place where they can work together with people who care about them.
Strouse understands the sports genre and the teen genre well enough to subtly deconstruct them and make the characters in The Winning Season feel like real people living real lives, rather than caricatures following an easy formula. Nothing about The Winning Season is easy for anyone, but the fact that Strouse makes their difficulties so funny and engaging makes the film more rewarding than pretty much any other comedy that has come out this year.