Within the opening five minutes of WINNING SEASON, it’s pretty safe to assume you know how things are going to play out. The underdog high school sports story is well-trodden ground, and writer-director James C. Strouse brings little new to the table, instead trying to cram in too many stand-by elements of the genre, bloating a film which, while familiar, is harmless fluff featuring decent performances from a cast who all perhaps deserve a little better. The always dependable Sam Rockwell plays Bill, a down-on-his-luck deadbeat hired by an old friend (Rob Corddry) to coach the local high school girls basketball team. The team members themselves (led by the tirelessly plucky Emma Roberts), each an unfortunately underwritten representation of various high school issues, all deliver solid work with the exception of recent Oscar nominee Rooney Mara, who can certainly scowl admirably but seems a little disinterested by her role.
While it’s likely that some will dismiss WINNING SEASON as too clichéd and derivative, truthfully it’s hard not to be at least a little charmed and swept up in a story like this. Rather than sleepwalking through what will certainly be a forgotten role, Rockwell brings genuine heart to Bill, demanding that audiences root for him and his girls. There are a few too many side-plots which see the narrative lose a little focus, but as the season progresses to its inevitable and predictable conclusion, there are plenty of sweet moments and chuckles along the way. The rules of this genre work well enough to see WINNING SEASON through, but attempting to subvert the conventions a little more probably would have resulted in a fresher, more satisfying film.