Rest easy, Iowa City: ‘The Miracle Season’ is good, or at least good enough

The Miracle Season premiere

FilmScene — Friday, April 6 at 1 p.m.

Kathy Bresnahan: The Miracle Season book signing, film screening and post-film Q&A

Coral Ridge Cinema — Friday, April 6 at 5 p.m.

Helen Hunt as Coach Kathy Bresnahan and Erin Moriarty as Kelley Fliehler in “The Miracle Season,” premiering in the U.S. on April 6. — film still

Like many in the Iowa City community, I’ve been skeptical about The Miracle Season since we first found out Caroline “Line” Found and the 2011 West High volleyball team were getting a movie. That movie will premiere across the country on Friday, April 6. A portion of the profits from FilmScene’s screenings, as well as money raised from selling Live Like Line T-shirts, will be donated to the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa.

The story — high school volleyball players fighting to win state after the death of their star player in a moped accident — made for a moving Real Sports special, and its themes of redemption, culminating in the cathartic moment when the embattled team clinches the state championship, are undeniably cinematic. But unlike many of the “great” sports flicks, the West High volleyball tale doesn’t align with politics or stir patriotic pride. It’s a local story about high school girls, and it’s more about tears and teamwork than kicking commie ass or breaking barriers.

So, it got Sean McNamara: the director of Soul Surfer.

The 2011 surfing biopic is a pretty by-the-numbers tween Cinderella story, but it does do a few interesting things: For one, it centers on a female athlete, a type of character grossly underrepresented in sports films. (For every 10 Rocky sequels, you get maybe one A League of Their Own, Million Dollar Baby or I, Tonya, and not all make for a good movie night with your young daughter). Secondly, it finds a way to stage the mutilation of a teenage girl by a shark in a PG, non-gratuitous way. No small feat.

Cheesy dialogue, cliché themes and merely passable acting aside, Soul Surfer had one job, and it did it right: It portrayed a horrible, violent event involving a teen girl with sensitivity and respect for its real-life characters. And damn if I wasn’t inspired.

McNamara did his job here as well, and thank God he did. But would The Miracle Season have been made and released if he hadn’t? Not on Ernie Found’s watch, it seems. During his speech at the film’s hometown premiere on March 18 — when I saw the film — Caroline’s dad told the Englert audience that “Hollywood descended” after the Real Sports special, and he turned down the requests of several filmmakers before agreeing to let LD Entertainment tell his late daughter’s story. They understood what made the story tellable, he said.

“If this project could help a single soul step towards their dreams, it will be worth the effort,” Ernie concluded.

The Miracle Season has many of the same flaws as Soul Surfer, but I think its triumphs are greater. And it had a bigger hurdle: The story hinges on a senseless and absolute tragedy. Unlike Bethany Hamilton, Caroline herself cannot be redeemed through grit and determination; those traits will only get you a state championship trophy and a modicum of comfort as you continue to grieve. The Miracle Season is aware of this.

The filmmakers also have a vocal Iowa City community scrutinizing their every decision. This story means a lot to us. And we’re trusting it to a movie, an artistic medium ruthlessly judged and analyzed on social media and sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

Rest assured, The Miracle Season is good. No, you won’t hear it mentioned come awards season, but this movie may very well change young lives. Kids will go out for volleyball. Kids will think twice about forgoing a helmet. Kids will go home and Google more about Caroline Found and her team. They may even make a pilgrimage to Iowa City’s Ped Mall to sit on the Live Like Line bench or lay flowers near the tree where Caroline died.

“Let’s enjoy what we have while we have it,” Caroline wrote in an op-ed for the West High newspaper, read by a student before the Englert screening. This is the film we have, and it’s good enough.

If you still have worries stepping into the theater, allow me to attempt to assuage them. There are mild spoilers below, but I do not discuss specifics of the film — at least not any that weren’t shown in the trailer — and other instances are widely-reported real happenings.

Do they show the crash?

Absolutely not. You do see Caroline drive away on a moped, without a helmet; in the next scene, music plays over the police officers knocking on Ernie Found’s (William Hurt) door to tell him the news, and you see various characters react in silence.

There is a lot of grief depicted, enough to spark a chorus of audible sobs in the theater the day of the hometown screening. When Ellyn Found, who would pass away from pancreatic cancer 12 days after her daughter’s death, steps out of her wheelchair and walks down the aisle at Caroline’s funeral, as she did in real life, it hits you like a tidal wave.

There is some cringey dialogue, especially in the beginning — Caroline and teammate Kelley Fliehler hang up volleyball posters around town, and they might as well be Belle greeting villagers at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, except to a Katy Perry song — but it is obvious that careful consideration was put into the scenes discussing Caroline’s and Ellyn’s deaths.

It’s hard to be a part of the Iowa City and West High community and judge whether the film manages to tell a good story — if there were any blanks left open, my mind filled them in, drawing from my own memories and emotions (I went to a few Girl Scout camps with Caroline growing up and was one of the many who basked in her perpetual humor and energy) — but I found it sober and realistic enough.

Can Helen Hunt really pull off Brez?

Yes. The character of Coach Kathy Bresnahan is my favorite part of the film. She’s not the kind of coach that throws chairs around the locker room, but she also doesn’t sing kumbaya with the team. She keeps people at an arm’s length, and yet she overflows with quiet sympathy and determination — a tough-love coach indeed.

Kathy Bresnahan shows her former players her “granny panties” before the hometown screening of “The Miracle Season” on March 18, 2018. — photo by Emma McClatchey

The film throws plenty of cliché sports movie scenarios her way — she has to hunt down and encourage a player that quit; she has the team run ladders in a scene straight out of Miracle, including the triumphant score; she has to tell her athletes there’s no crying in volleyball, but hides her own tears in the locker room — but all are improved by the presence of this funny and feminist character. Hunt does great, even if, as one of her former players pointed out on the red carpet at the hometown screening, she’s a little more glamorous than the Brez.

On that red carpet, after most of the public had filed into the theater, the players asked Bresnahan if she was wearing her “granny panties.” Brez walked up to her former team and yanked her underwear up over the waistline of her pants. “Ew!” one of the women giggled. “Are you sure that’s not a diaper?” “They’re my granny whites!” Brez declared proudly, turning and showing the press.

This kind of scene wasn’t in the film, but I could see Hunt’s Brez flashing her granny whites as well.

Are the players depicted accurately?

I can’t really say. Though many on the team were my classmates (I graduated from West in 2011, about three months before Caroline’s death; Brez was my freshman P.E. teacher), I didn’t know them well, nor am I aware of all the intimate details of their stories. There did seem to be some character traits and plots shoehorned in for story purposes (see one below), and it does give you an uncanny kind of squirm seeing your peers, neighbors and former teachers portrayed by movie stars. Character-wise, it’s prudent to take the film with a grain of salt, or maybe a whole packet.

Another tragedy in the West High community during the fall of 2011 was understandably absent from the plot of The Miracle Season: Ramone Bryant was killed in a fire less than a month after Caroline passed away, on Sept. 3. Bryant was 14, and a new freshman at West High School when he died.

“It’s not a documentary,” Ernie Found reminded the crowd at the Iowa City premiere. “Not everything happened. Condensing three months of all the highs and lows of human emotion into 139 minutes is [difficult].”

Kathy Bresnahan (left), members of the 2011 West High volleyball team and Ernie Found at the hometown screening of “The Miracle Season” on March 18, 2018. — photo by Emma McClatchey

What’s with the romance hinted at in the trailer?

Yeah, there’s a little fictionalized love story between protagonist Fliehler (Erin Moriarty) and a male classmate. It’s cute enough, but benign. Screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda were no doubt trying to stir in some levity and character development for Fliehler, but I’d rather the time had been used to further round out the Found family or the relationship dynamic between the West High players. Let’s double down on positive portrayals of female friendship!

Is the volleyball action convincing?

To a volleyball layman, at least, yes. I found the games engaging, but I wish the script included a little more education on the sport.

Does it look like Iowa City?

Yes and no. Mostly no, because it was filmed in Vancouver, not Iowa City. Yet it wasn’t distractingly different. West High wasn’t West High, but they found a school of comparable size and it worked. Moreover, there are diegetic details that will probably go unnoticed by national viewers, but that this Iowa City native and West alumna appreciated: The Trojan mascot was everywhere, but like real life, nobody sung the West fight song or went all High School Musical with school spirit; all sorts of characters wore Hawkeye shirts; they even recreated exact posters held by fans during the state championship game. And of course, blue and orange Live Like Line shirts abound.

A good amount of corn is shown in the film, which tends to elicit groans from Iowans, but I promise you won’t feel like you’re watching Field of Dreams 2: Volleyball Championship.

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