In 2011, director Sean McNamara pulled a bit of a shocker when his faith-inspired film about surfer Bethany Hamilton Soul Surfer surprised just about everyone when it picked up a nearly $50 million global box-office against an $18 million production budget and simultaneously reminded everyone that Helen Hunt was still one incredible actress despite being relatively quiet in recent years.
The truth is that Hunt has always remained on the scene, though somewhat selectively, and even picked up an Academy Award nomination in 2013 for The Sessions.
While it almost seems unimaginable that a film centered around a high school girl's vollyeball team could catch fire at the box-office, Hunt and McNamara have reunited for The Miracle Season and this is one pretty wonderful film that deserves an audience.
While McNamara isn't really a household name, he's long been a respected television and film director in the area of family films. He's been nominated for one primetime Emmy, for That's So Raven in 2003, and picked up a BAFTA for Even Stevens. He's also a three-time Daytime Emmy nominee and a four-time Directors Guild of America nominee and has picked up a slew of festival awards. While he's directed outside the family film genre, it's a likely safe argument that family films are what he does best and, as a huge fan of Soul Surfer, I'd dare say that The Miracle Season is his best feature film yet.
The Miracle Season centers around the West High School Trojans, a 2010 state volleyball champion in the state of Iowa that was looking to defend its title in 2011 behind its team captain and star player, Caroline Found (Danika Yarosh), the daughter of a local surgeon (William Hurt) and whose mother (Jillian Fargey) is terminally ill and inspiring pretty much everything that Caroline does. After Caroline's sudden death, the dispirited team can barely function let alone think about playing volleyball despite the attempts at tough love by their coach (Helen Hunt). It's only when Kelly (Erin Moriarty), Caroline's longtime best friend whose place on the team had been tentative at best, becomes inspired to begin playing in Caroline's memory that this seemingly hopeless team begins to show signs of pulling off a miracle season as they begin to "Live for Line."
If you're sitting there shaking your head thinking to yourself "The last thing I need is another inspirational sports drama," rest assured that The Miracle Season is a good notch or two, maybe more, above the usual rah-rah drivel that you see in the multiplexes these days. McNamara has few peers when it comes to directing quality, intelligent and inspiring family dramas and if you liked or loved Soul Surfer then it's absolutely unimaginable that you won't love this film.
The truth is that I cried. A lot. The Miracle Season had me hooked from beginning to end, mostly owing to McNamara's top notch ensemble cast and a story that sticks mighty close to the truth even in some scenes that you'd swear are so schmaltzy they can't possibly be true.
They're true. They're really, really true.
Helen Hunt, who has long been one of my favorite actresses, is an absolute gem here as Coach Kathy Bresnahan, who captured the National Coach of the Year Award in 2011 before eventually retiring in 2014. Hunt's Coach Bresnahan comes into this tragedy with her own baggage, though that baggage is given very little attention past the film's opening scenes. She's a no nonsense coach whose humanity is shown in glimpses, yet whose journey feels remarkably complete by film's end. William Hurt is also perfectly cast as Ernie Found, a proud father struggling to adjust to his wife's impending death who is suddenly forced to face another devastating tragedy. Hurt's Ernie has some quietly profound lines in the film that are wonderfully reflective of the complicated nature of grief.
While the adults in The Miracle Season are strong, the truth is that this film belongs to the young women who comprise the girl's volleyball team. As Caroline, Danika Yarosh makes you absolutely fall in love with her and her relationships with everyone, a powerful thing to have happen that, in turn, makes the audience join the team in their grief. Erin Moriarty is simply stellar as Kelly, who has long lived in Caroline's shadow and who now is being called into her own inner strength and leadership. Watching Moriarty bring Kelly's transformation to life is just a beautiful experience.
McNamara does a terrific job of balancing out the team roles, allowing different players different times to shine and, perhaps more importantly, making everyone understand their own individual role. This case feels like a "team," which is just about as high of a compliment as I can come up with considering they are, in fact, playing a team. Lillian Doucet-Roche, Tiera Skovbye, Nesta Cooper, Natalie Sharp, Rebecca Staab and others are all stand-outs who do a terrific job, despite the challenge of character development with such a large team, of turning in disciplined and nuanced performances.
The film's original score is rock solid throughout including some tunes you may not expect in a modestly budgeted family film, though the appearance of a certain Neil Diamond song may feel so cliche'd that you'll be stunned to learn, stay for the closing credits, that it actually happened in real life.
David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda's screenplay certainly taps into inspirational sports flick cliche's, but The Miracle Season is so infused with humanity and strong performances that you can't help but surrender yourself to them. There's never really any doubt where the film is going, it is called The Miracle Season after all, but by the time you've reached the film's 99th minute you'll have grown so fond of these characters that you won't mind a bit.
Brian Pearson's lensing nicely captures the film's rural setting, though Vancouver, British Columbia substitutes for the film's Iowa setting. The original score by Roque Banos is for the most part underplayed, a nice choice given the tendency in inspirational sports films to really heighten the drama.
The Miracle Season was a pleasant surprise, though given McNamara's stellar record in family films and television it shouldn't have really been a surprise. This is the kind of film that deserves an audience, a good-hearted and communal sort of film that respectfully deals with grief while celebrating friendship, teamwork and rising above one's challenges. Both richly authentic and immensely human, The Miracle Season is the kind of inspirational film that works hard and earns that inspiration.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic