An air of déjà vu hangs over “The Winning Season,” the story of a sad sack who takes the helm of a ragtag, losing basketball team and gets a shot at redemption. But if the Indiana-set comedy evokes " Hoosiers,” “The Bad News Bears” and countless other sports movies, not to mention storytelling clichés, it also has at its center the singular and underappreciated Sam Rockwell.
Divorced and hangdog, complete with cluttered apartment decorated in Early Drab, Rockwell’s Bill is a onetime b-ball coach who is bussing tables when his second chance arrives. That opportunity takes the form of an old friend who’s a high school principal. Played by Rob Corddry in refreshingly snark-free fashion, Terry asks Bill to coach the girls varsity team and listens patiently when he rebuffs the idea. “Women hate me,” Bill says — and judging by his interactions with his passive-aggressive ex-wife ( Jessica Hecht) and openly enraged teenage daughter (Shana Dowdeswell), he’s not exaggerating.
In keeping with formula, Bill promptly overcomes his resistance, and in the team he finds females who are not only ready to argue with him but also willing to listen. Within proscribed roles, the young actresses deliver natural performances, by turns willful, skeptical and exuberant. The least convincing strand involves the anti-immigrant attitude of the team’s sole African American toward a Latina teammate; it’s a heavy-handed bit of messaging, but Shareeka Epps (“Half Nelson”) and Emily Rios play it with restraint. As a precocious beauty who dates older men, Rooney Mara brings little beyond sullenness to suggest what made David Fincher cast her in his English-language version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
But this is no action thriller, the obligatory training montage notwithstanding. “Winning Season” often lacks momentum, especially in its early stretches. It is, however, a far more solid film than writer-director James C. Strouse’s debut, the war-themed family drama “Grace Is Gone.” As the games tick off the team’s inevitable improvement, the story deepens through the clownish, heartbreaking exertions of Rockwell’s gruff misfit, still working things out at the final buzzer.
“The Winning Season.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements, language including some sexual references, alcohol abuse and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.