“The Miracle Season” – “Do you believe in miracles?” – Al Michaels, February 22, 1980.
Look up the word miracle in Google, and it’s defined as a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be a work of divine agency. A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences. An amazing product or achievement, or an outstanding example of something.
All of us have an interpretation of a miracle. From a sports perspective, perhaps we have experienced one as a fan or a player on a field or in a park. In this country, the word is best associated on the ice, when the U.S. topped the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics Semifinal, 4-3. Well, “The Miracle Season” – the true story about West High School’s Girls Volleyball team, located in Iowa City, Iowa – demonstrates that an extraordinary accomplishment occurred on the court in 2011. This emotional sports movie – directed by Sean McNamara and starring Helen Hunt, William Hurt, Erin Moriarty, and Danika Yarosh – will not only break hearts, but inspire tears and cheers.
Since grade school, best friends Caroline (Yarosh) and Kelly (Moriarty) have inspired plenty of laughs and warm feelings with each other. Caroline is much more of the alpha-female between the two, but has plenty of heart, gregariousness and smiles.
As her dad, Ernie Found (Hurt), puts it, Caroline is a sworn enemy to a pause in conversation.
Caroline embraces life, figuratively and also literally, as she will deliver a hug to anyone. A fellow student, a family friend, her father and even her volleyball coach, Kathy Bresnahan (Hunt).
(For the record, I think if I hugged my high school baseball coach, he would probably would have sent me to detention, but I digress.)
Caroline – the captain of West’s Volleyball Team, the defending state champions – is a leader on and off the court, and Yarosh’s portrayal of her enthusiasm does overflow. Quite frankly, the first few minutes of meeting Caroline, it feels a bit much, but Yarosh also delivers a foundation of authenticity and generosity, so this captain’s/best friend’s/daughter’s spirit rings truthfully, despite movie audiences only knowing her during a feature film presentation.
McNamara takes a straight-up approach with presenting the story, as tragedy strikes this community, and Caroline – the heart and soul of the team – is at the center of it. Family, friends and the team have to pick up the pieces and themselves off the floor and somehow get through their days without bursting into tears. Although volleyball is just a game, Coach Bresnahan moves forward the only way that she knows how: by coaching this group of girls to play the sport that they love.
“The Miracle Season” has all of the components for an effective sports film, and it successfully hits many of the right beats, including long odds and likable characters. Kelly is thrust into the spotlight in ways that she’d rather not be, and Moriarty is convincing as a girl struggling in both personal and competitive moments.
She is an underdog who is easy to support, and Moriarty and McNamara place her in enough of those said circumstances to earn our 100 percent backing. In fact, Moriarty, Hurt and Hunt consume much of the screen time, as the principal characters impacted by the story, and the latter two actors light up the screen as a caring father and a socially-introverted coach, respectively. They throw heaps of emotional baggage on their characters’ backs and express Found’s and Bresnahan’s anguish in unexpected waves that carry the picture.
Along with Yarosh’s previously mentioned establishing performance, Hurt’s and Hunt’s combined follow through resonates demonstratively, and with lesser actors, this 99-minute picture may have simply passed as just another sports film. Hurt and Hunt bring experienced gravitas, as skilled professionals, whose past characters have coped with heartbreaks.
Even though teenagers are the most vulnerable to life’s curveballs, adults have the history –through the passage of time – to become more wounded at their core. Hurt’s and Hunt’s work here caused about 10 distinct moments of tears for this particular critic, and “The Miracle Season” is an important reminder that they are both experts at their chose profession. To put it bluntly, we need to them big screen more often and soon. Can Helen Hunt play a coach in every film?
The movie does let the audience see plenty of volleyball, and the on-the-court choreography seems fine, although – admittedly – not off-the-charts outstanding. The volleyball scenes don’t possess the same “it-factor” flair as say “Hoosiers” (1986), the gold standard of sports films, but the girls certainly possess the skill sets as more-than-credible athletes.
“The Miracle Season” loses points for too many montages and not enough of the season’s on-the-court journey, and McNamara does not give the audience a chance to learn much about the other girls. In fact, one might be hard pressed to remember even one teen’s name outside of Caroline and Kelly, as the volleyball team members seem like a collection of girls that help fill up the court, bus rides and parties at Ernie’s red barn. Kelly even has a love interest, but what is his name again?
Then again, given a choice, McNamara and writer Elissa Matsueda made good decisions to not crowd the narrative. Instead, they invest their time with a small core of characters, and this was energy most well-spent. The film handles the horrible circumstances presented to this community in a delicate fashion, but also the leaves the emotional wounds for moviegoers to digest. In other words, the material is suitable for kids ages 10 and up, and will move and encourage girls and boys in positive ways.
After “The Miracle Season” ends, make sure to spend your time sitting through the credits, as the actual footage of the team and its story unfold, but be warned. If you teared up 10 times like this particular critic, prepare for number 11, because yes, a real miracle appeared in Iowa in 2011.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: LD Entertainment; Trailer credits: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films