Take The Bad News Bears, age the kids up five or six years, make them all girls, swap out Little League for high-school basketball, and you've got The Winning Season, a thoroughly likable little movie that's a better retread of Michael Ritchie's baseball classic than Richard Linklater's remake.
Bill (Sam Rockwell) may not have hit rock bottom, but he could scrape his knuckle on it with a short jab. The alcoholic works at a restaurant as a dishwasher and takes every opportunity to finish whatever beer might be left in the glasses of customers whose tables he's bussing. When an old friend (Rob Corddry) offers him the chance to coach varsity girls basketball at the school where he's the principal, Bill quits his lowly job. The team is small -- just six girls, including one on crutches. And Bill's less-than-warm personality immediately turns them all off. However, this collection of young women from broken homes needs a coach as badly as Bill needs a reason to keep his mind off his failing relationship with his own teenage daughter, and soon the seemingly hapless squad is listening to Bill, putting together a season they'll all remember. All the while, Bill is fighting his own demons.
The character arcs in The Winning Season are thoroughly familiar from every popular sports movie of the last 40 years, so the film's success rests in the hands of the actors. That being the case, if Walter Matthau is unavailable to play the cranky, drunken mentor to a group of ragtag would-be teammates, you could do a whole lot worse than Sam Rockwell. He's a master of playing seemingly irredeemable a-holes, and making you care about them. He makes sure we see all of Bill's worst aspects, but even at his most heinous -- embarrassing his daughter at a friend's birthday party, or sloppily hitting on a waitress -- he's got a humanity that never fully extinguishes.
The supporting cast is solid, if not exactly standout. Emma Roberts is appealing as the team leader who learns that her boyfriend isn't as great as she thinks as he is, and Meaghan Witri has some sweet, touching scenes as the team's center who's wrestling with some very personal issues. But Margo Martindale, as the bus driver-turned-assistant coach, matches up best with Rockwell; her quiet patience acts as the perfect counterbalance to his extroverted charisma.
Writer/director James C. Strouse overplays Bill's exasperation with his players' touchy-feely emotions and their politically correct tendencies -- a little of that stuff goes a long way. But, aside from this, the script is full of great zingers, and although the story structure stays on an overly familiar path, there's little reason to subvert convention when you've got a bunch of charming characters and talented actors.