By: Steve Pulaski
The death of West High School senior Caroline Found in 2011 left a gaping hole in the community and an even greater one in her school volleyball team, as she was the team captain. Through time-tested leadership and motivation, "Line," as she was affectionately known, helped lead her team to a championship win the previous year. Her enormous impact left her teammates distraught and incapable of playing the first few games of the season in her absence. But with the fire ignited by team coach Kathy Bresnahan and the new captain, Kelley Fliehler, one of Line's best friends, the West High Trojans overcame a winless skid to advance to the championship once more. They defeated the crosstown-rival, Iowa City High School, to take home the glory two consecutive years in a row.
Like all great down-and-out underdog stories, Found's story just begs for the Hollywood treatment and it gets it by way of including the worst conventions in sports films and melodramas. The Miracle Season is treacly, emotionally manipulative-fare for those who can't help but tear up at well-meaning Coca-Cola advertisements during the holiday season. It squanders the humanity behind Found's heartbreaking story and paints grief as something that's equally felt amongst a collective, effectively generalizing the stories of the brave young women who battled hard in the name of their fallen friend.
Let's begin with the few positives at hand. Helen Hunt does a fine job with the character of Coach Bresnahan, humanizing her as best she can by replicating her gung-ho personality on the court and pensive state after a few bottles of Bud Light Lime. With that, the young Erin Moriarty (True Detective) manages to find the remnants of a relatable high school teenager in Kelley when the screenplay doesn't have her sobbing or predictably doubting her own abilities. And, on a totally unrelated note, it's always something of a muted plus when an unexpected song turns up in the soundtrack, and to that I must give The Miracle Season more credit: I hadn't heard "Sweet Caroline" in a minute and its use to solid effect before the credits commence. The pop classic was also a break from the otherwise obnoxious score, which captures the copious amounts of volleyball footage with explosive Katy Perry and Demi Lovato as if you turned your young daughter's driving playlist on shuffle.
Switching gears, take note that for both the performances I credited, I had to give them a nod that the screenplay doesn't do them many favors. The rotten core of The Miracle Season, aside from its aforementioned soundtrack and nauseating sentiment, lies in David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda's script, which is a heavy-handed mess all around. Cringeworthy dialog that would be billed as such at the writers meetings for the next God's Not Dead sequel are as common as shots of serving. Throwaway lines like, "let's show 'em what we're made of!," "they're going down!," and "let's kick their butts!" serve as quasi-motivational babble that wouldn't insight a group of golden third graders playing soccer during gym class to try any harder. We get a dose of Line's larger-than-life personality in the opening scene, only to have her killed off before we could know her as anything besides what we're told countless times. During the course of this prologue, we also need to meet a youthful Eli Manning-lookalike who will eventually come to be Kelley's (inevitable) boyfriend and see both her and Line paste some two-hundred volleyball posters all around town just before class. Have you seen teenagers that early in the morning? They're miserable even when they order their morning Dunkin.
The Miracle Season knows no mode other than overwrought and no specificity other than general. It casts an embarrassing universality over its real-life subjects when we couldn't possibly know what kind of guidance, emotional support, and grieving these young girls could've undergone after the loss of such a charismatic friend. The film was directed by Sean McNamara, the gun-for-hire director of live-action children's fare, who took a similar route with Soul Surfer. While a solid step above this film, Soul Surfer — the AnnaSophia Robb-picture revolving around Bethany Hamilton, the surfer who lost an arm in a shark attack — did its subject something of a disservice by trying to cast an always-positive ray of sunshine over the main character no matter how dour her situation.
At what point can we start recognizing that these films are unhealthy in their own way? Both Soul Surfer and The Miracle Season can and will be considered harmless encouragement for their target demographic, but they are byproducts of a culture that is hellbent on being positive against all odds. 'Oh, you wouldn't want to show young kids a movie about them being sad about death," you might say. "Why wouldn't you?," would be my response. They'd get a better, more realistic life lesson than the ones presented here, plus a strong takeaway that would show there's more to grieving than wiping away a few tears after barking perfunctory messages at your peers. In both cases, a documentary would've served their respective stories far better.