They might as well call the 2009 Sundance Film Festival the year of Sam Rockwell. With the premiere of The Winning Season, from director James C. Strouse (Grace is Gone), Rockwell has solidified his position as one of the clear winners of this year’s fest. Having already raved about his performance in Duncan Jones’ stylish sci-fi drama Moon, I was expecting to see something solid of Rockwell as a broken down former high school basketball star who is tapped to coach the girls varsity squad at his hometown school. However, as he’s done so many times in the past, Rockwell’s performance exceeded even the most ambitious expectations, delivering one of his best performances to date.

Part Hoosiers and part Bad New Bears, The Winning Season is an immensely charming film about love, fatherhood and overcoming ones demons. Unlike his directorial debut, 2006’s Grace is Gone, this a significantly more accessible and lighthearted film from James C. Strouse. Yet while it is at times very clever and fun, it also succeeds in capturing some very poignant moments as we watch the central character’s world spin out of control. Essentially it is the heartwarming sort of sports movie that we haven’t seen in a while. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we haven’t seen a basketball movie with this much authenticity and heart since Hoosiers.

What makes it work so well is that Sam Rockwell delivers a magnificent performance. His story is one filled with sarcasm and sadness, leading to plenty of laughs as well as a handful of deeply moving moments. Rockwell’s delivery is the key to the humor, perfectly infusing wit into the otherwise sad situation of his character. Also surprisingly charming are the performances of the actresses that make up the girls varsity basketball team, namely Emma Roberts (Nancy Drew), Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), Emily Rios, Rooney Mara, Meaghan Witri and Melanie Hinkle. As a group, these six girls breath a lot of life into the story and work perfectly in balance with the brilliance of Rockwell.

At its core, The Winning Season is a simple, yet entertaining and sweet movie that is sure to warm a few hearts. If you’ve enjoyed the smart, compelling work of Jim Strouse in the past, then you are sure to love this one. And if you’re one of those folks that is yet to discover the incredibly talented Strouse, this is a perfect place to start. It is his most accessible and easily entertaining film, one that is funny when it wants to be and poignant when it needs to be, achieving a balance between comedy and drama that is rare and should be celebrated as such.

Grade: A-

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