Bill (Sam Rockwell), a drunk, divorced dad and one-time hoops hero now bussing tables in a grim Hoosier town, is approached by high school principal Terry (Rob Corddry) to lead the pathetic girls' varsity-basketball team. Avoiding all the aggressive emotional manipulation of his previous Grace Is Gone (2007), writer-director James C. Strouse's The Winning Season respects its misfits (and its audience) by not stripping away their foibles in the service of sports-movie clichés. A runty Walter Matthau, Rockwell greets his multiracial squad with boozy, bed-headed scorn. Yet his inevitable transformation to decent guy and devoted coach feels earned, not forced, and is largely the result of his charges' persistent, never bratty or precocious, demand that he do better by them (a true Title IX triumph). Though not every attempt to include real-world struggles within the confines of a basketball comedy works—a well-intentioned subplot about same-sex feelings goes nowhere—The Winning Season still admirably addresses the woes and regrets of too-early parenthood and the hazards of being a teenage girl. When player Abbie (Emma Roberts, excellent), being raised by her granny and new to dating, asks Coach, "What makes a guy a jerk?," it's clear that the question has long been on Strouse's mind, too.
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