Have you heard of The Dice Man? It’s a novel from 1971 written by Luke Rhinehart, about a man named Luke Rhinehart who started living his life by the roll of a die. I read that book when I was at University and it kind of stuck with me (I also read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I was smoking a lot of weed that month). It always seemed like such an interesting and care-free, not to mention dangerous, way to live; that transference of all responsibility for your own actions onto a little cube of plastic. What doors would that open up in your psyche, I wondered. What would you find out about yourself, and your limits? Unfortunately I don’t have any dice in the house so I used a bouncy rubber ball to choose today’s film. My psyche remains unaffected.
Small films are good too.
A school principal asks his drunken dishwasher friend Bill to coach the girls’ basketball squad, changing Bill’s life as he bonds with the team. The people who write these synopsises (synopses? Synopsi?) for Netflix really have a talent for boiling a story down to just one sentence, don’t they?
Why is it that good sports movies are only ever built around a handful of sports? American Football (or, if you’re in America, “football”), baseball and basketball lead the way but soccer (or, if you’re not in America, “football”), cricket and rugby for some reason just don’t really work cinematically. Escape To Victory is one notable exception to the rule, but it has Pele against the Nazis so it gets a pass. The Winning Season can best be described as Hoosiers with girls and while it might not hit that film’s lofty heights, a surprisingly sharp script and some disarming performances make it eminently watchable, even though you can plot out the entire story before the opening credits have ended.
Sam Rockwell plays Bill, the former high school basketball star turned alcoholic dishwasher and estranged father. Out of the blue, Bill’s old friend Terry (ex-Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry) comes in to the restaurant and offers Bill the job as coach. It’s a shame we don’t really get much of the history between Bill and Terry, but there is plenty more happening to get the film up to its hour-and-three-quarter running time. After some initial doubts, Bill takes the job and shows up to meet the team. As it turns out, there are only six girls on the squad and one of them has a broken foot. Unfortunately for the team this means no substitutions, but fortunately for the writer he doesn’t need to try and make a group of twenty teenage girls into separate distinct characters. The standouts among the girls are Emma (daughter of Eric) Roberts as team captain Abbie and Meaghan Witri as Tamra, the principal’s daughter and expert snarker. Half-Nelson star Shareeka Epps has a disappointingly one-note role (the angry one) and future Oscar-nominee Rooney Mara doesn’t have much to do but is as good as you’d expect when she gets a scene to herself. Emmy-winner* Margo Martindale gets some great little moments too as Donna, the team’s disco-loving bus driver turned assistant coach. There is no doubt about who this flick belongs to though. Sam Rockwell has been one of my favourite actors for years, and his name being on the credits is what earned The Winning Season its spot on the Bouncy Rubber Ball of Destiny shortlist in the first place. The character of the shambling, drunk, deadbeat dad who finds some self-respect and redemption is beyond cliché at this point, but Rockwell makes Bill a fully-realised person. He is consistently a bit of an asshole through the whole film, but crucially, he’s never less than sympathetic.
It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that, despite a rocky start, the team makes it to the Sectionals play-offs – the damn title gives that little nugget away – but writer/director James C. Strouse still manages to wring a little of tension out of the game scenes. Strouse makes a competent director, but the film is shot much as you would expect it to be; there isn’t really much room for stylistic innovation in the high school sports/comedy/drama genre after all. One (more) thing I liked about this film is that the humour comes from the characters just as much as the dramatic moments do. The comedy is much more naturalistic as opposed to an endless string of punchlines and non sequiturs. These people all talk like real people, and real people are funny.
The presence of Rockwell (who also produced) and Sundance fave Strouse undoubtedly bought this movie more cachet than most other, similar films but there is no pandering to the indie in-crowd here. This is not some post-modern, ironic take on the high school genre. It might be an old story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a good one.
*Outstanding supporting actress in a drama series. She was Mags Bennett in the second season of Justified; the best series on television at the moment in my not-very-humble-at-all opinion.