Friday, April 6, 2018

The Miracle Season: Failure to spike

The Miracle Season (2018) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.6.18

Inspirational sports sagas tend to be bullet-proof, and even this one builds to an exhilarating climax.

Getting there, however, is another matter entirely.

Caroline "Line" Found (Danika Yarosh, No, 9) and a cluster of her teammates — from left,
Kelley Fliehler (Erin Moriarty, No. 19), Taylor (Lillian Doucet-Roche, No. 14), Brie (Tiera
Skovbye, No. 8) and Mack (Natalie Sharp) — get ready for another intense volleyball drill.
Granted, The Miracle Season is based on actual events, but that’s no excuse for director Sean McNamara — aided and abetted by scripters David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsuida — to lard the pathos with a trowel. So many tight-tight-tight close-ups of tears and quivering lips. The pregnant pauses, long-suffering sighs and anguished glances heavenward. Melodramatic dialogue so insufferably sugary-sweet that it’ll send insulin-dependent viewers into a diabetic coma. The swelling orchestral flourishes from Roque Baños’ histrionic score.

McNamara makes no secret of his desire to craft — whether as director, writer or producer — wholesome, family-friendly dramas; one need only read his IMDB bio. That’s well and good, but there’s a chasm of atmospheric distinction between “wholesome” and “gag-inducing sentimental slush.”

I kept waiting for some of this film’s performers to throw up their arms, burst into a heartrending Shakespearean soliloquy, and expire on camera.

It genuinely grieves me to be so mean-spirited, given McNamara’s sincere intent, and the authentic real-world tragedy-turned-triumph that inspired his film ... but that’s the problem. He tries much, much too hard; he should have had more faith in the strength of the story itself, and trusted his audience to “get it,” without jerking his puppet master strings so blatantly. And repeatedly.

The setting is Iowa City’s West High School, where newly minted seniors and longtime best buds Caroline Found (Danika Yarosh) and Kelley Fliehler (Erin Moriarty) eagerly await the start of volleyball season, revved up to repeat their previous year’s championship victory. Coach Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), while sharing this desire, wisely cautions against cockiness and entitlement.

As a redundant voice-over narrator needlessly informs us, during a Hallmark greeting-card prologue, Caroline — everybody calls her “Line” — is one of the magical, charismatic wonders who inspires everybody to be better versions of themselves.

She’s the perfect daughter to parents Ellyn (Jillian Fargey) and Ernie (William Hurt), the latter a spinal surgeon at the University of Iowa’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery. She’s the compassionate spirit who ensures that nobody eats alone in the lunchroom. The encouraging captain of their Trojans volleyball team. The polite, bubbly and forever cheerful high school ambassador who ensures that all local adults have positive opinions about the teenagers in their midst.

Yarosh deserves credit for (mostly) pulling off this über-angelic persona without becoming insufferable, but even she falters when Line and Ernie visit the hospitalized Ellyn, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. It’s a tough scene, particularly coming so early in the film, when we’ve yet to decide how to feel about these characters. McNamara handles it reasonably well ... until, quite suddenly, it slides into the sort of exaggerated schmaltz one would expect from a bad TV soap opera.

An unfortunate sign of things to come.

Angst-y issues also abound elsewhere. Brez has walled her emotions off, apparently because she is going through a spiteful divorce or separation. (It’s hard to be sure, since this detail never again surfaces beyond a fleeting early reference.) The insecure Kelley, forever striving to stand out from her best friend’s radiant shadow, frets that her sports abilities aren’t worthy of the rest of the team.

On top of which, Kelley has butterflies over the hunky new guy in town (Burkely Duffield, as Alex). Not that she should worry, because he obviously crushes on her, as well.

Then everything comes to a skittering, catastrophic halt, when Line is killed in a road accident. (Credit where due: McNamara keeps this off-camera, rather than subjecting us to any sort of exploitative shock.) And if that isn’t awful enough, Ellyn succumbs to her disease and dies two weeks later, after attending her daughter’s wake.

West High — and the entire town — are stunned into shock. Brez and Kelley withdraw into grief-stricken silence, but that’s nothing to what poor, soft-spoken Ernie goes through: a soul-crushing level of anguish that Hurt projects with painfully raw intensity.

The rest of the Trojans — almost none of whom can be characterized by distinctive personalities — have no interest in training, let alone playing. The season progresses; a game is forfeited.

Something has to shift, and everybody knows — without saying as much — that they need to take their cue from Ernie ... who, in turn, is the only person able to give Kelley “permission” to step up, to fill Line’s place, and lead by her example.

What happens next ... well, it must have been something, to live in Iowa City during those tempestuous months.

The scenes between Hurt and Moriarty are touching: among the rare moments when McNamara pulls back and lets his actors do the work. Ernie clearly views Kelley as an almost-daughter: a cherished loved one permitted — nay, required — to call him by first name. (We get a sense that Kelley’s parents felt the same way about Line; we simply don’t see much of Mr. and Mrs. Fliehler.) Hurt always excels at “reacting” — at leaning slightly back, with a quizzical smile, when somebody says or does something that puzzles or amuses him — and he handles these moments with sublime delicacy.

As contrasted with another encounter, late in the film, when Ernie — having bottled up his rage at God, and the unfairness of it all — finally returns to the church he has ignored for weeks, and shares a candid moment with a trusted friend.

A few quiet comments, then Ernie sighs. “I guess I can’t blame Him for wanting her back.” [Heavy pause.] “She’s a keeper.”

I nearly choked on my popcorn.

Nobody — not even William Hurt — could pull off a line that breathtakingly, atrociously, hilariously maudlin. I’m surprised he maintained a straight face.

And, needless to say, nobody would ever say anything like that, at such a moment. While it’s certainly one of the worst clunkers in Cohen and Matsueda’s tone-deaf script, it’s by no means alone.

The usually fine Hunt does her best, but — as written — Coach Brez remains too bottled up to get a bead on. Her decision to turn around and quietly leave, at the verge of joining a crucial gathering of Ernie and the team, defies description. Like so many moments in this film, it’s simply wrong. Hunt conveys more than most, via expressive silence, and that’s a good thing ... because this script doesn’t do much to help her.

Jason Gray-Stanford, still fondly remember as the flustered Lt. Randall Disher, on television’s Monk, stands out as Assistant Coach Scott Sanders. He supplies the levity and just-often-enough snarky one-liners; more to the point, he feels like an actual human being, as opposed to so many of this film’s contrived constructions.

Which is a shame. Ernie Found deserves better; Line’s memory deserves better. Heck, Iowa City deserves better. HBO’s 2012 Real Sports coverage, at 14 emotion-packed minutes, is far better than this sappy melodrama.

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