If you recall director Sean McNamara’s 2011 biographical drama, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, it won’t be difficult to see the connection with his new film, The Miracle Season. They’re not the same story, but the formula is definitely there, and The Miracle Season is nothing if not formulaic. But in this case, that’s not such a bad thing. Cynicism against thinly veiled, inspirational, faith-based movies with a sports-theme formula is understandable, but try resisting The Miracle Season whose very title expresses its outcome; it might be difficult.
Like Soul Surfer, there’s an upbeat, exuberant, and perhaps even more importantly, an ever-present virtuous heroine at its center, except in The Miracle Season that inspirational presence is mostly spiritual. Caroline Found, known as Line or Liner to her friends, was the popular team leader of the Iowa City West High School volleyball team. But tragedy struck. In 2011, Caroline died in a moped accident. Her teammates were understandably distraught, even though there was a championship to defend. The girls of Iowa City West were the 2010 State Volleyball champions. But now, with the emotional loss of the team’s most popular girl, they simply lost interest in playing.
Then inspiration came. After losing games through forfeit, the team united, and after a shaky start, they played. But their playing wasn’t just a need to win, it was a need to win for Caroline. And at this point it doesn’t need a reviewer to plow head-first through plot-spoiler after plot-spoiler to tell you what happened. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the real-life story, and have never before heard of Caroline Found, you know going in how it ends, the faith-based title tells you. As the voice-over narration from Caroline’s best friend, Kelly (Erin Moriarty) informs us, “Winning for Line was everything. So, losing for Line was unthinkable.”
“This is our year, Kell,” Caroline (Danika Yarosh) tells her childhood friend and fellow volleyball teammate. “Our year.” As portrayed, Caroline is that unrelenting ball of positive energy whose batteries never flag. She practically skips along the sidewalk while others walk. With her long, flowing blonde hair, her blue eyes, and that athletic frame, she looks like a Scandinavian teenage beauty whose very demeanor screams wholesome health. But at the twenty-five minute mark, she’s gone. We don’t see what happens, which is good, but like all key, emotional moments throughout the film, we feel the impact. “There’s been a terrible accident,” the police tell Caroline’s father, Dr. Ernie Found (William Hurt). “It’s Caroline.”
The film then centers around best friend Kelly, who needs every word of motivation she can get in order to carry on. And in a film like this, those tear-jerking, motivational platitudes come at every opportunity. Coach, Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt) continues holding the after-school volleyball practice because, “It’s what Line would have liked us to do.” When Kelly looks to the wholesome boy-next-door (Burkely Duffield) for inspiration before a game, he tells her, “Win or lose, you’re making her proud. I know it.” And when Caroline’s team captain position is awarded to Kelly, she confesses to Caroline’s father of her remorse for taking her friend’s spot. The good Dr. Found assures the girl there’s nothing to feel guilty about, “You took a position and you made it your own.”
Though the climactic state final is an edge-of-your-seat, thrillingly staged game, the several wins leading up to that championship finale are less so, presented more as a seemingly non-stop series of repetitive highlights consisting mostly of powerful ball pounds whacked over the net. You never really know where you are in the game, but at least it’s edited in a way that makes things appear exciting. It’s up to the broadcasting commentator with the mic and the headphones to fill us in. “The girls are letting it slip away from them!” he declares in case we haven’t noticed. And if those quick cuts to the electronic score board mean nothing, then the commentator helps us out by telling us, “If they win this set, then they win the match.” Good to know.
The faith-based movie comes from an industry that starts with good intentions but often ends with mixed results. The target audience for these comfort-food-for-the-soul stories may watch them with a less than critical eye, but having an inspirational message at its center is not enough to make a lame tale with average performances rise to something worthwhile just because there’s a religious theme involved.
Some may argue that this is what its audience wants, but why take the easy route and settle for giving them what they want when filmmakers can give them something better? The Miracle Season is something better. It manipulates the tears, sure, but then again all films manipulate emotions in one way or another. That’s what they’re designed for. And in Caroline Round’s story, what you see and what you might perceive as cinematic poetic license to heighten the inspirational factor actually happened, as evidenced by the clips of the real events that run during the end credits. In the way that the Iowa City West High School volleyball team won, against all sensible odds, the film itself eventually wins you over.
The gauntlet is thrown. I dare you not to cry, or to join in with a chorus of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline after the game. Good times never felt so good. So good! So good! So good!
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 99 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)