"THE MIRACLE SEASON" — 2½ stars — Helen Hunt, Erin Moriarty, Danika Yarosh, William Hurt, __Tiera Skovbye; PG (thematic elements); in general release__
"The Miracle Season" has a big heart, but as a sports movie, its by-the-book predictability will keep it from competing against the titans of the genre.
Sean McNamara's film is based on the true story of the 2011 West High Trojans, the women's high school volleyball team in Iowa that had to overcome the tragic death of its captain, Caroline "Line" Found, in order to defend its state title.
The film opens at the beginning of the school year and quickly portrays how Caroline (played here by Danika Yarosh) is a ray of sunshine to everyone she encounters. But it's not as if her life is perfect. Her mother Ellyn (Jillian Fargey) is hospitalized and in the late stages of a terminal illness, despite all the efforts and support of Caroline's father Ernie (William Hurt).
Ernie becomes the focal point of double tragedy, then, when after a team party, Caroline is killed in an auto accident, and Ellyn follows her shortly after. Caroline's death is a massive blow to the team, and for a time, the girls are unable to take the court for their determined coach, Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt).
But eventually, the Trojans are able to rally together around Caroline's memory, and led by Caroline's best friend Kelly (Erin Moriarty), they start the long road back to defend their title. Still, thanks to a poor start to the season, they find themselves in such a deep hole that they will basically have to go undefeated in order to qualify for the state tournament.
With a title like "The Miracle Season," it's pretty easy to see where things are headed, even if you haven't seen the trailer (which is yet another example of why smart audiences should avoid trailers wherever possible). McNamara's film doesn't hold a lot of surprises, and the real suspense doesn't kick in until the third act, when the question of whether the Trojans will defend their title truly lies in doubt.
For the most part, the film focuses on the emotional struggle of the players as they wrestle with their grief, but additional subplots make use of "Miracle Season's" veteran supporting cast.
For Kathy, the ordeal is meant to shake off her aloof nature and truly connect as a coach and mentor with her players. For Ernie, losing both his wife and daughter forces the surgeon into a state of spiritual crisis as he tries to summon the bravery to go on. Sadly, both of those subplots feel a little underdeveloped, though the film does benefit from the skills of Hunt and Hurt.
Some well-shot volleyball action sequences and a moving montage of photographs and footage from the real Trojans over the closing credits help make up for some of "Miracle Season's" execution shortcomings, including some corny expositional voiceover from the various game announcers.
Altogether, the effort is bound to tug at the heartstrings, and many audiences will be perfectly happy with the results. "The Miracle Season" will stand as a heartfelt tribute to Caroline Found, even if the movie ultimately pales next to the various inspirational sports films such as "Hoosiers" and "Rocky" that showed it the way.
"The Miracle Season" is rated PG for some thematic elements; running time: 100 minutes.