“The Miracle Season” is a religious sports film — and by that, I don’t just mean that it’s a drama sprinkled with faith-based fairy dust (though you don’t have to look hard between the lines to see that it is). I mean that it’s a movie of fundamentalist feel-good fervor.
Set in 2011, it’s based on the true story of a high-school girls’ volleyball team — the West High Trojans of Iowa City — who won the state championship two years in a row, and it’s all about how they took their inspiration from tragedy. Just as that second season was getting under way, the team’s star setter and most popular player, a 17-year-old senior named Caroline Found (known by her nickname, “Line”), was killed in an accident while driving a moped. Caroline, by all accounts, was a highly adored student: fiery, virtuous, charismatic, good. Her disconsolate teammates felt that they couldn’t go on, that they couldn’t play without her. But instead, they decided to play with a vengeance. They fought their way to a second championship by honoring, and channeling, her spirit.
In “The Miracle Season,” every character and situation, every line and digression, is crafted to feed your sentimental sweet spot. There’s no jealousy or rivalry or bad vibes — anywhere in the movie. Every girl on the team is wholesome and spirited, vibrant and true; every person on screen is nice. (The movie seems to be saying: Why would there be any pettiness, any mean-girl negativity? It’s Iowa!) Caroline’s bestie, Kelly (Erin Moriarty), takes over for her as center and triumphs by finding the strength of heart to match her friend’s. And though the team takes a while to get its mojo back, once they start winning they’re unstoppable.
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Even if you see through the benign (manipulative) strategies of “The Miracle Season,” which isn’t hard to do, resistance is futile. You will surrender. You’ll feel the tear on your cheek, the lump in your throat, the reverent huggy glory of it all. “The Miracle Season” is a movie guided by a higher power, and that power is the film’s sacramental devotion to getting a rise out of you.
Does that mean it’s a dishonest movie? Yes and no. It sticks close to the actual story of the West High Trojans, and during the real-life video footage that accompanies the end credits, we can see that the actors have done a scrupulous job of capturing the spirit of the people they’re playing: William Hurt as Caroline’s benevolently crusty widowed father, Dr. Ernie Found (who lost his wife to illness shortly after Caroline’s death), and Helen Hunt as the coach, Kathy Bresnahan (known as Brez), a solitary taskmaster who’s a good egg deep down but doesn’t believe in what you might call outward displays of emotion. Hunt, sullen and bedraggled, plays much of the movie looking as if she’d just bit into a lemon. Her Brez is a pill, a tough-love crank, yet she believes in her girls, and Hunt’s performance is cannier than you think. She doesn’t just bottle up emotion; she saves it for the end — and when it comes out, this dyspeptic soul suddenly seems touched by grace.
Yet even if you’re moved by it, there’s no denying that “The Miracle Season” is such a formula film. The Trojans, thrown off their game by Caroline’s death, lose a number of matches early on in the season; this means that after a certain point, they’ll have to win 15 games in a row or they’ll be out of the running. That doesn’t exactly create timeless sports-movie suspense.
If the volleyball matches were thrillingly staged, they might be their own reward. Yet right up until the championship game (which is exciting), the director, Sean McNamara, smashes the contests into generic athletic-video fragments. Few sports you could think of possess the flow of volleyball — the continuity of movement is built right into the sport’s name — but “The Miracle Season,” instead of tracing the gathering energy of volleys, reduces the game to a single element: power. The moments when the balls are pounded across the net like bullets. Volleyball is about power, but it’s also about the call and response of teamwork, which in “The Miracle Season” is mostly an abstraction.
Caroline Found, played with plucky spontaneity by Danika Yarosh, isn’t on screen for long, but her presence hovers over the movie. The notion that even after her death, she’s still there, and that the team remains in communion with her by playing to win, doing what Line would do, is treated in all-American Christian terms. Caroline’s ailing mother (Jillian Fargey) gazes at her photograph at the wake and says that they’ll soon be reunited, and she insists on getting out of her wheelchair and walking. Symbolic snow angels figure big in the movie. And during the final game, when everyone in the arena puts on T-shirts bearing the slogan “Live like Line,” Caroline isn’t just honored — she’s resurrected. She teeters between being an inspiration and a cornfield saint, and she turns the movie into a connect-the-dots “Field of Dreams,” one that asks, in essence, “How would Jesus spike that ball?”