In volleyball terms, “The Miracle Season” should have been an easy spike, a perfunctory “kill.”
The “set-up” is can’t miss. Popular, bubbly star volleyball player with a state championship team dies, gutting her teammates. They have to “dig” deep to save their season, “For ‘Line'” (Caroline) and wring tears out of the audience.
Toss two Oscar winners in the major adult roles — Helen Hunt and William Hurt. And with the director of “Soul Surfer,” one of the best faith-based sports movies ever, well it’s break out your hankies time.
The advertising writes itself — “If you cried at “Brian’s Song” or “The Fifth Quarter” or “Hoosiers” or “We Are Marshall,” you’ll bawl your eyes out at ‘Miracle Season.'”
Only we don’t. Sean McNamara’s “Big Game” formula drama is ONLY about the Big Game — an endless procession of them. Characters are shortchanged, emotional impact is deadened. Heck, the dead teen’s funeral/wake is practically covered in a simple, short montage.
In short, “We Aren’t Marshall.”
Danika Yarosh (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”) plays “Line” as a perpetually beaming, giddy blonde who lifts everybody up, just by her presence. She leads her Iowa City West Lady Trojans on the court, and starts the towel fights and Katy Perry sing-alongs in the locker room afterward.
She’s so damned adorable she makes your teeth ache. But then, maybe she has to be. Her mom is dying, her doctor-dad (Hurt) is reeling. But she’s got volleyball, and her best friend forever — Kelly (Erin Moriarty of “Captain Fantastic”) and a legion of friends, not just teammates.
“This is OUR year!”
And then she’s killed.
True confession time, the movie is right on the edge of insufferable right up to that moment — Line bucking up her recently-split-up coach (Hunt), taking pizza-stuffing dares from the other Lady Trojans, fixing up Kelly with the cute new boy in town (Burkely Duffield).
The town and the team are so devastated by her death that nobody wants to even think about volleyball. And when Coach “Bresh” summons them, they can’t focus on practice through the tears.
“NO crying on my court!”
Kelly is given the captaincy, and the challenge — “Girls are looking at you to see if it’s OK to play again.” She isn’t up to that challenge, not at first.
Line’s dad isn’t holding up well, either. All this death has him noting “God hasn’t exactly for ME lately” as an excuse for skipping church.
But they all suck it up and get back to the game, which takes over the last half of the movie, in toto. Dr. Deadgirl’s Dad sets the corny tone for Kelly.
“I may be the surgeon, but you’re the healer out there!”
Hunt, playing a woman who can’t let herself give in to grief, gets her emotional moment. It doesn’t really make up for the most banal sports movie dialogue ever — “Dig, DIG. Serve to Zone One! ”
But if Lifetime ever decides to make “The Pat Summitt Story,” about the tough, no-nonsense University of Tennessee basketball coach, this shows Hunt would be perfect for it — intense, sensitive, feminine and brusquely butch.
Moriarty isn’t bad in the lead, just underserved by the script. And yeah, she’s Iowa bland. The movie emphasizes wholesome at the expense of pretty much everything else, rendering it pleasantly inoffensive, but nothing more.
The volleyball itself is photographed in the most pedestrian slo-mo imaginable. You get a little sense of strategy, but not much. There’s no insider slang. You have to go back to the gay boy-joins-girls-volleyball-team comedy “Miles” to know that the form-fitting shorts the players wear are nicknamed “Coochie Cutters.” “Miracle Season” is too PG for that.
It could please any crowd with little experience of sports movies, especially teen girls. Maybe teen boys, too. But that lack of tears isn’t due to any great effort to not let anybody else see you cry. With all it has going for it, the only miracle in this “Season” is that it just doesn’t deliver.
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements
Cast:Erin Moriarty, Helen Hunt, William Hurt, Danika Yarosh
Running time: 1:35