The Winning Season -- Film Review

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The title of "The Winning Season" is, of course, the first spoiler in this movie about a down-and-out, alcoholic ex-basketball player who gets hired to coach a girls' high school team. In reality, you could have called the movie "Clippers Basketball," and a viewer still would expect the girls to post a winning record. Because from the first frame, writer-director James C. Strouse (who did the button-pushing wet-hankie movie "Grace Is Gone") signals that he is not going to deviate from the "Bad News Bears" formula.

The movie, which has been kicking around since the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, will have a brief theatrical window before going to DVD, where potential sales will be more likely.

Strouse's script is less a screenplay than a checklist: A misogynistic misfit takes over a girls' team and discovers that he, gasp, likes these girls -- check. A drunk eventually loses his thirst for drink and regains his lost daughter -- check. A Chicana outcast gains the respect of her teammates and rediscovers her self-worth -- check.

A girl must confront her sexual feelings for other girls -- check. A girl must learn that a selfish, shallow "sports hero" doesn't make for a good boyfriend -- check. Another girl learns the same lesson about a potential pedophile -- check. A team turns around its season when the members learn the value of team play -- check.

There's not a lot of space on the list for the unexpected. As both writer and director, Strouse embraces the obvious and shuns the unconventional. Despite this, several performances stand out, indicating that there was a decent sports movie here that Strouse dribbled right past.

Sam Rockwell has several fine moments as the coach. His character stands in for many people who, after high school glory in sports, find themselves lost in an adult world no longer interested in long-ago exploits. Rockwell demonstrates he has what it takes to play those bitter disappointments with some real emotions had the movie been willing to dig beneath the all-too-easy exterior of alcoholism and misogyny,

Margo Martindale brings excellent comic timing and savvy character acting to what could have been an incidental role of the team's bus driver whom the coach hires as an assistant despite her knowing nothing about basketball.

Among the girls, Emma Roberts has solid scenes with Rockwell as her character takes the lead in trying to establish diplomatic relations between the team and its heedless coach. Meaghan Witri finds ways to make the girl discovering her lesbian nature not a cliche.

Shareeka Epps again displays the feisty spirit seen in Rodrigo Garcia's "Mother and Child."
Rooney Mara might be the newly anointed Lisbeth Salander in the American remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but she doesn't have enough to do here to impress other than with her rail-thin beauty.

The production, including the basketball sequences, is pro. However, the film might set an unfortunate sort of indie record for handing out producing credits as 16 -- count 'em, 16 -- people are listed as producers or exec producers, not to mention three more co-producers. It's a wonder the girls could find the court with that mob hanging around.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 3 (Lionsgate)
Production: Gig Films & Plum Pictures in asociation with Sneaky Pete Prods. and Tax Credit Finance
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Emma Roberts, Shareeka Epps, Emily Rios, Rooney Mara, Meaghan Witri, Melanie Hinkle, Margo Martindale, Rob Corddry
Director-screenwriter James C. Strouse
Producers: Gia Walsh, Kara Baker, Celine Rattray, Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive producers: Pamela Hirsch, Sam Rockwell, Joseph C. Grano, Andrea Grano, Daniel Crown, Nick Quested, Reagan Silber, Jeanne O'Brien, David Sweeney, Jamie Carmichael, Erick Kwak
Director of photography: Frankie DeMarco
Production designer: Stephen Beatrice
Music: Edward Shearmur
Costume designer: Vicki Farrell
Editor: Joe Klotz
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes
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