'The Miracle Season': Film Review

Sappiness sans substance.

Starring Helen Hunt, Sean McNamara's sports film charts a high-school volleyball team's comeback after the loss of a beloved star player.

Family and friends of Caroline Found, an Iowa teenager who died in 2011, may welcome Sean McNamara's The Miracle Season, a feature recounting how girls on her volleyball team pushed through their grief to win a state championship later that year. They should probably avoid reading reviews of the film, including this one — because Miracle Season is godawful, even by the standards of sports dramas, where healthy doses of manipulation and hagiography are accepted as part of the inspirational formula.

With apologies to the actual people involved, who are no doubt lovely humans and deserve much better:

As depicted here, Caroline (called "Line" or "Liner" by friends) and best friend Kelly lived for volleyball and each other. Played by Danika Yarosh and Erin Moriarty, respectively, the two are as white, blonde and toothy as any teens farm country has ever grown; in opening scenes they bound through Iowa City in a pantomime of BFF-ness that would be impossible to endure for the length of a feature. Both actors have enough professional experience to understand where the line is between irrepressible and insufferable. But McNamara urges them to rush far past that boundary, letting up on the act only when the script mentions Line's terminally ill mother Ellyn (Jillian Fargey).

Visiting Ellyn in the hospital alongside dad, Ernie (William Hurt, wholesomely bland), Line refuses to accept Mom's realism. "We talked about this, honey," Ellyn says, reminding Line that she probably won't live long enough to see if the girls earn their second state volleyball championship in a row. Ignoring the prognosis, Line looks at Mom's IV and threatens to "spray gooey Liner love into your bloodstream." If only the film came with a similar disclaimer.

Riding home from a party on a borrowed moped, Line is hit by a car and killed. Before McNamara is done with his maudlin community-grief montage, Ellyn dies as well. West High School lives under a cloud, and the Trojans, the volleyball team that just lost its leader, understandably forfeits a game or two by not showing up. But stoic coach Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), who was already dealing with her own personal loss, sees sport as a path back to normalcy. She declares that practices will resume, and forces the girls right back into achievement mode. First job: Find a new girl to play setter position. Roque Banos' score shimmers heroically as Kelly is discovered as Line's natural replacement.

In a sports film that doesn't need to be faithful to actual events, the loss of a key player generally comes toward the end of a dramatic season or game. With emotional momentum established, we're easily swept up with heartbroken athletes who decide they can summon the strength to win for the teammate they've lost. Here, we're at the start of a long year, and the big accomplishment (a state championship) has already happened. While the inspiration may have worked in reality, helping the Trojans win 15 games in a row after their season's desultory start, it's an absolute flop as movie drama.

Co-screenwriter (with Elissa Matsueda) David Aaron Cohen was a co-writer on the feature version of Friday Night Lights, and appears to have learned nothing from the experience. Not only does Miracle Season lack the expected structure: An hour into the picture, the script hasn't given us a single other player on the Trojans to care about. (Natalie Sharp, as the most jock-ish player on the court, singles herself out with body language, but nobody gives her anything to do.)

The screenplay's no more attentive outside the gym. At the film's start, Kelly takes interest in a new neighbor named Alex (Burkely Duffield), who quickly becomes her boyfriend. But there's not a single indication that Alex might have a personality or be important to her; when, late in the film, Kelly shows up at his house to apologize for having been MIA from the relationship, we have no idea they were on the outs.

Worst served here is Hunt, who joined McNamara in his previous true-sports inspirational film, Soul Surfer. Coach Bresnahan — emotionally bottled-up, badly wounded but needing to connect with these kids at their darkest moment — promises to be a part playing to Hunt's strengths, if only Cohen and Matsueda did anything with her. As she piles the gang onto a bus, heading for state semifinals they had no hope of qualifying for, the coach is prompted to give an inspirational speech. "So, here we are again," she begins. "Thanks."

The anticlimax of those words is meant to be comic, of course, and to pave the way for a more heartfelt scene to come. But the speech is about as well developed as Bresnahan's backstory is, and it's about as affecting as anything in this rote, mawkish comeback tale.

Production companies: LD Entertainment, Apex Entertainment
Distributor: LD Entertainment
Cast: Erin Moriarty, Danika Yarosh, Helen Hunt, William Hurt, Tiera Skovbye, Natalie Sharp, Jillian Fargey
Director: Sean McNamara
Screenwriters: David Aaron Cohen, Elissa Matsueda
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Scott Holroyd, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon
Executive producers: Jennifer Monroe, Nicole Stojkovich, Campbell McInnes
Director of photography: Brian Pearson
Production designer: Brent Thomas
Costume designer: Jenni Gullett
Editor: Jeff Canavan
Composer: Roque Banos
Casting directors: Susan Paley Abramson, Justine Hempe, Sheila Jaffe

Rated PG, 100 minutes