The Miracle Season – 2018

Director Sean McNamara
Screenplay by David Aaron Cohen, Elissa Matsueda
Starring Helen Hunt, Erin Moriarty, William Hurt, Danika Yarosh, Tiera Skovbye, Rebecca Staab, Burkley Duffield, Natalie Sharp, Jason Gray-Stanford, Jillian Fargey

If there ever was a little film that could rise above its spare cast, screenplay and direction, you’d hope it could be something like The Miracle Season. It has the look and feel like a Lifetime movie of the week. It has a saccharine sweet plot that seems too good to be true. It has a bunch of blonde Iowans at its core. It wins you over in the end, though.

The story is a true one. The state champion West High School volleyball team in Iowa City loses its star player Caroline “Line” Found (Yarosh) on the eve of the season. Her cancer stricken mother Ellyn (Fargey) lasts long enough to walk down the aisle to her daughter’s casket.

The town and the team is in shambles. Her best friend Kelly (Moriarty) perhaps most of all. They gather the will to overcome the pain and loss and scrap there way back to the championship.

Anyone who sees this movie knows how it’s going to turn out. It feels like a cliche, even if it’s pretty much all true. The best thing about the film is the fact that even if you know what is going to happen, none of the people in the story are made into arbitrary antagonists, or overly anglicized.

Caroline is shown to be a pretty nice kid in the short time she’s on the screen. We also see her do a few dumb things. They don’t over emphasize either, but they do take her best attributes and find inspiration in them.

Sure, the rest of the team is overheard by our protagonist, doubting her ability to lead. It’s just one scene though, and they work it out in a mostly organic way. Some might call the script under cooked. I think the editing gives it a little more subtlety than we’d normally see in a story of this type. Gregory Nava is a superior director, but even he could have taken a few subtle cues from McNamara here.

This is partly because William Hurt and Helen Hunt. They have no business being in a film of this caliber. They raise it on the wings of strong character building. Hurt is the father of a dead daughter and husband of a dead wife. His Ernie Found is a simple man whose faith is tested sorely, and like many in the flyover states, he makes the best of the inclement weather. There is no color by numbers to his character. Indeed the bulk of the script is not about his journey. His skill is such that he reels the viewer in anyway.

Hunt takes her character to an even more complicated level.  Her coach Kathy Bresnahan is purposefully unreachable. The journey of her suffering is a frustrating one for the viewer as it obviously is for her. Hunt’s character is deceptively colored with a selection of boring colors and expressions. It’s obvious to one that she is not real connected to her feelings at first. In time, she comes to the connections that it is easier for others to make. The process feels genuine and lasting.

Like most good films based on real life, we get glimpses of the real people at the end. It’s hard to keep a dry eye in the film, but the feelings really start flowing once you see the picture of Ernie crying in the stands while holding his daughter’s portrait.

I was so moved by the film I did my own research, discovering Coach Bresnahan started the Live Like Line Foundation, which she still serves as one of its Board members. Its purpose is a simple one: to help local kids overcome financial barriers to participate in school activities.

Sure, the acting is a little goofy. It stops on the border of maudlin. It’s as accurate a recreation as I’ve seen. Most important, never loses touch with the true feeling a small city can feel about something seemingly as inane as a sports game. It’s more than that, though. It’s about a kid who had heart and her sisters on the court who loved her.

Frank DeFord covered the story for HBO Real Sports. The story is given as much justice by DeFord as by McNamara. If you can’t get behind this movie and this team, you need to reconnect to your heart.

For those truly inspired, the entire championship match is here:

(**** out of *****)

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