Iowa produces more corn than any other state in the Union, and this year it will have to add “The Miracle Season” to the crop count. The fact-based tale about an Iowa City high school’s girls’ volleyball team that tries to win a second consecutive state championship after its captain and star player has died strives to be inspirational, but a heavy-handed script and sledgehammer direction do it absolutely no favors.
The film’s opening introduces BFFs Caroline and Kelly, whom we meet as kids (Bailey Skodje and Ava Grace Cooper) as they make “snow angels” in summer mud. Skip forward a few years and they’re seniors at West High, Line as she’s nicknamed (now played by Danika Yarosh) having led their volleyball team to the 2010 state title. She and fellow player Kelly (now Erin Moriarty) are so bubbly and excited over the upcoming season that they’re borderline insufferable, and when they stop along the way to school so that Line can play matchmaker for Kelly with handsome Alex (Burkely Duffield), who’s moving into the neighborhood, they’re even more extravagantly ebullient.
That same over-exuberance extends into their first practice under Coach Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), a demanding, no-nonsense sort angry over her own recent divorce, whose determination is only partially ameliorated by the geniality of Assistant Coach Scott Sanders (Jason Gray-Stanford). And it continues into a party that Line hosts in the family barn with the help of her dad Ernie (William Hurt), a doctor who’s worried about the illness of his wife Ellyn (Jillian Fargey) but regales the squeaky-clean kids with his magic tricks anyway.
The carnival of good feeling and energy (which, incidentally, gives not the slightest sign of actual schoolwork) dissipates, however, when Line is killed in a motorbike accident. All involved are devastated, and Kelly and the rest of the team are literally unable to soldier on without her, forfeiting games before being haltingly brought back together by Coach Bresnahan. Kelly becomes the setter and team captain, and though they lose their initial games, they will eventually rally as it becomes apparent that they need to win all fifteen matches remaining on the schedule to get to state again.
The emotional losses multiply, however, when Ellyn succumbs to her illness, a double whammy that Ernie understandably takes hard, at one point even blaming God. (This is in fact a faith-based film, though not as blatant about it as most.) But he too will stage a comeback, encouraging Kelly and even resuming his place in the cheering stands as the team rolls up victory after victory in their march to Cedar Rapids, where the state finals are held. (Curiously, in all of this Bresnahan and Ernie are the dominant adult figures. Kelly’s mother occasionally appears, but remains a peripheral figure, without even a single line of dialogue.)
One might expect that the volleyball action over the course of the Lady Trojans’ run to the championship, an effort inspired by Line’s remembered vivacity, would be exciting, but it really isn’t, since director Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”), cinematographer Brian Pearson and editor Jeff W. Canavan present it as a series of spike-filled montages, bereft of any sense of strategy or much rhythm (sometimes sliding into slow-mo for effect). There is entirely too much reliance on that dreadful old crutch, remarks by broadcasters commenting on the games in their usual clichéd fashion, for the movie’s good, and the score by Roque Baños, which swells on cue at melodramatic moments and blares out at triumphant ones, is no help in that regard.
The performances, moreover, are either too much or too little. Yarosh is so gung-ho, would-be lovable that she comes off like fingernails on a blackboard, and while Moriarty naturally grows more subdued after her friend’s demise, neither she, nor any of her teammates, nor Duffield as her boyfriend have much chance to stand out. Hunt goes through the film with a prune-faced look; Bresnahan’s refusal to show much emotion is her main characteristic, but it reduces most of the actress’ turn to predictable instructions to her team from the sidelines. (She is given one dramatic moment when she argues with a ref, and another joyous one when she leaps from the bus on the way to the championship to join Kelly in making snow angels along the roadside—an obvious reference back to the movie’s opening scene, through the change from fall to winter is terribly abrupt.) Hurt brings his hangdog lethargy to Ernie, but in the film’s latter stages his only contribution is to clap from the bleachers as the Lady Trojans mount their amazing string of wins.
There’s always been an audience out there for this kind of come-from-behind underdog sports fare, but in this instance the formula feels strained despite its grounding in reality, and the execution is simply not strong enough to compensate. Real footage from 2010-2011 accompanies the final credits, showing the actual people in bits often recreated in the movie; but it merely reinforces the feeling that “The Miracle Season”—a title that in itself telegraphs the entire plot—is more soapy but heartfelt tribute than effective sports-based drama.