When a docudrama ends with a collection of photos and film/video of the real events you’ve just seen dramatized, it’s really easy to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t attempt a well-structured documentary rather than crank up every manipulative, overly sentimental dial in their arsenal to give us a beat-for-beat re-enactment of what is clearly a heartfelt story without the vaguely faith-based undertones and often embarrassing performances by normally reliable actors.
Welcome to The Miracle Season, the true-life story of a high school volleyball team that suffers an admittedly tragic loss and struggles back from being emotionally hamstrung to use the tragedy as a source of inspiration to…well, I mean, it’s there in the title, right?
Directed by Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer), the film establishes eternal BFFs Caroline “Line” Found (Danika Yarosh) and Kelly (Erin Moriarty of Captain Fantastic), both of whom are on the West High Trojans girls’ volleyball team in Iowa City, which is coming off the previous year’s win in the state finals. The whispered consensus on the team seems to be that the beloved Caroline is not only the best player but its spirited core as captain, while Kelly is an average player, mostly there because she’s Line’s best friend. So when Line dies in a moped accident after a parent-approved birthday party (the film goes out of its way not to portray any of the students as rebellious), the team doesn’t believe it can even continue playing and ends up forfeiting its next game.
Urged by Coach Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt) and encouraged by Line’s grieving father (William Hurt), who lost his wife to cancer just days after his daughter’s death (if the film is accurate), the team pulls itself out of its grief, still losing quite a few games, and puts itself in a position where they must win every one of their remaining 15 matches or not qualify for the playoffs. Without much competition around her, Hunt easily gives the finest performance in The Miracle Season as the no-nonsense taskmaster who is clearly hurting as much as the students but opts to retreat into a position of burying her emotions in an attempt to rally her team under the banner of “Live Like Line” (an expression that is literally emblazoned on t-shirts by the end of the movie).
Just because the movie uses obvious methods to tug at the heartstrings doesn’t mean it doesn’t work on occasion. It’s hard to resist the pull of an entire cast of weeping actors, even if it illustrates director McNamara’s shameless use of sadness as a filmmaking tool rather than an actual human emotion. And I couldn’t shake the idea that, even if only for a few months, Caroline was being turned into a saint (or perhaps another well-known religious figure) who the entire school and town worshipped in the hopes of being the first team to win state two years in a row.
I’ll admit, I bristle when a film throws religion in my face as a cure-all, in lieu of genuine emotional support, and this one just barely avoids the label of being a faith-based film. But again, it’s kind of there in the title. Granted, watching a movie about a bunch of teens going to grief counseling wouldn’t be nearly as compelling, but that doesn’t mean that the story of The Miracle Season is any more satisfying an experience. I’d say only go if you have an interest in watching William Hurt cry for 99 minutes…or if you’re a genuine volleyball fan.