Ultimately, although there are many tender moments, THE WINNING SEASON is confusing, because Strouse is confused about whether he's making a genre film or an indie film. Down-and-out coach, small-town Indiana high school, basketball -- sounds like Hoosiers, doesn't it? Director James C. Strouse seems to be half paying tribute to and half subverting the very genre his movie falls into -- the uplifting sports drama. The best parts are when the girls show Bill that he's sorely lacking when it comes to communicating with young women. When he casually calls an opposing player "the big girl," the team calls him out for reinforcing negative stereotypes ("You're the reason girls get eating disorders," one of his team deadpans). By taking Bill to task, the girls actually prepare him to face his sullen daughter, herself a basketball player at a rival school.
Martindale, a gifted character actress, impresses with her low-key portrayal. Donna is the most genuine character in the movie, with her quiet belief in the team and her witty banter with Bill. Rockwell, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors, never gives a dull performance. He plays Bill as a cocky curmudgeon who never coddles the girls or tries to be their best friend; he's coarse when necessary -- like when he tells Wendy not to flatter herself because she's not his type. His no-nonsense -- sometimes a tad harsh -- approach to coaching, in turn, teaches the girls to stand up for themselves, to believe in what they can accomplish together, despite their differences. Those differences, the girls realize, are insignificant, because when they get on the court, it's the teamwork that matters.