Early to the Theater: The Miracle Season

It was not so miraculous.

Achariya: I’m a sports writer for my other-other job, and there are serious issues to discuss when talking about the coverage of women’s sports in popular culture. I was quite excited about the chance to watch The Miracle Season because I thought maybe it would bring a positive spotlight to women’s indoor volleyball.

And I found myself slightly disappointed that what could’ve been a great documentary about a fraught moment in the sport was turned into an after-school special about model/actresses who never were not in their tiny uniform shorts, even for walking around town.

Here’s a short synopsis: the film was based on the true story of Caroline Found, a high school volleyball player, and the events that happened to the team in her senior year. Plot spoilers after the warning.

Jen: In looking over the description and cast, several signs jumped out at me. One was the PG rating, which indicated a family-friendly sports movie; which is fine, not all sports films require steroid use or other challenging material. Another sign was the tagline ‘based on a true story,’ and a sense that the filmmakers were going to present a very specific type of sports movie – uplifting and crowd-pleasing, but lacking in depth.

Achariya: When you mention crowd-pleasing, I’m struck by a memory — as we were walking out of the theater, we overheard a man say, “I cried through the whole thing.” I admit that I also cried, it was hard not to simply due to the subject matter. It felt pretty manipulative, though. Perhaps the filmmaking itself was clunky and heavy-handed — the second we saw the slow-motion farewell smile from one of the initial main characters, we turned to each other in our seats and said…

(Spoilers begin)

Achariya: “Yep, that character is about to die.” I just feel like you shouldn’t expect it, there shouldn’t be dramatic slo-mo and increasingly eerie music. The conceit that it was through the lens of memory simply signalled every plot twist well in advance, for me. It was like watching the “dramatic narrator” in action. “PLOT TWIST: SHE DIES.”

Jen: I felt like a monster, but remember laughing at that moment and I can explain why: these characters were never developed because they are based on real people and so I never connected with any of them. Creating a film based on real events involving still-living subjects is probably one of the biggest challenges of a filmmaker because you have to toe the line between honoring the subjects who are allowing you to present their lives as entertainment, but also have the respect required to tell someone when their story simply isn’t that interesting. Can you imagine looking Caroline Found’s father in the eye and explaining that his daughter’s story needs more character conflict? I can’t.

Achariya: Yeah. I keep thinking that a more subtle hand with either the script or the acting would’ve gone a long way to helping this story out. William Hurt and Helen Hunt were Ernie Found (Caroline’s father) and Kathy Bresnahan (the volleyball coach) respectively, and they did credible jobs with their roles.

The actress who played Caroline Found had the weight of a lot of expectations on her shoulders, as you said, and failed to deliver. It’s probably hard to play the part that the script itself describes in this way: “I know why the Big Guy took her home, she’s a keeper.” (Perhaps this is why it’s never discussed in the movie that Caroline actually died returning home from a church event, not a volleyball party.) But — did you have the feeling that God was about to step down from heaven and be on the team too? Just to help that sports team win States?

Jen: Yes. In the last scene of the Big Game the volleyball had a CG look and I was waiting for a pair of translucent hands to appear and push it back behind the line. Or a flock of doves to fly across the windows, something like that.

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Jen: I don’t want to bag on the movie too hard because I did appreciate a moment in the opening that set up a bit of character: you meet the two perfect little blonde girl leads in some rustic country scene, perfect Laura Ashley dresses and silky hair drifting on the breeze, and then they collapse into a mud puddle to make mud angels. That was a nice little twist on the setup. The callback later when Kellie and the team make snow angels was an opportunity for a pleasant callback to that, but it took me out of the moment by wondering if the team were going to be late to the Big Game.

Achariya: These moments of seeing traditional Iowan blonde girls doing “boyish” things gave me hope, yeah. Here’s the thing: this is a movie about women’s sports, and the girls doing the sports were portrayed in a way that mostly normalized a group of girls doing traditionally boyish activities. They were shown being supported by their school with a nice turnout of schoolmates at games with signs and special events for just the team (homecoming!), things that are so very often not the case for women’s athletics.

It was nice watching the sports parts of this movie, the athletes were good, and the matches were filmed well. Helen Hunt’s Bresnahan was incredibly convincing as the coach. Yes, coaches do walk around screaming unintelligible things at players — and her emotional turn (“I guess I should not have forced you guys to win for the sake of a dead girl, perhaps that was undue pressure”) rang true.

BUT. And here’s a huge but. If you’re filming women’s athletics, don’t shoot close-ups of their butts while pretending that it’s in the name of accurate filming. You can pick your angles. And, really?

Jen: That’s a really good point. I realize this movie was filmed before the #MeToo movement really got moving but any male director approaching material involving mostly teenaged girls is going to need to take that demographic disconnect into account. Granted, their uniforms were standard based on the pictures shown at the end of the movie of the actual people involved, but this project wasn’t going for 100% cinema verite, either.

The Miracle Season is absolutely enjoyable to the right audience, as evidenced by the occasional cheers from the crowd last night, but given how unoriginal the story, I would be surprised if anyone recommended it to friends or even remembered seeing it a few weeks from now.

... but what do YOU think?

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