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Coach (1978); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

coach-movie-poster-1978-1020232825Originally released 17 March 1978
Written by Steven Bruce Rose and Nancy Larson; from an idea by Mark Tenser
Directed by Bud Townsend

Starring Cathy Lee Crosby, Michael Biehn, and Keenan Wynn

My rating: ★★1/2 stars

Cheap but engaging time-waster.

This movie has no right to be as entertaining as it is. It’s cheap, slapdash, and exploitative. Nevertheless, it has an unexpected, engaging appeal. It tells the story of Randy Rawlings (Cathy Lee Crosby), an Olympic medal-winner who gets a job as a high school basketball coach, sight unseen, and faces opposition when the school board, run by town father Fenton Granger (Keenan Wynn), discovers that she’s a woman. However, she soon wins over her team, led by Jack Ripley (Michael Biehn).

Coach was produced by Crown International Pictures, an independent studio specializing in low-budget, grindhouse films, and Coach suffers from embarrassingly low production values. The lighting is murky. The sound is muddy, particularly for scenes shot in the gymnasium. The acting seems non-professional, except for the three leads. The opposing team members all seem to be the same forty-something crew members.

Yet, the movie is enjoyable despite its cheapness. It’s helped by strong, appealing performances by the leads. Crosby and Biehn are charming, and Wynn is typically irascible. If the supporting performances are amateurish, the characters, at least, are not unlikeable.

The writing, overall, is pretty good. The structure and character development are solid. The biggest problem with the storytelling is that the climax is complicated by a misunderstanding that would be easily resolved if the characters just talked about it. That kind conflict can work if it’s played for laughs (a la Three’s Company), but it’s played straight here.

Some of the dialogue is corny and ham-handed, but there are a lot of clever exchanges to balance out the bad ones. The dialogue in this movie might seem strange to modern moviegoers. The current trend in writing scenes is to start the scene as close to the high point of conflict as possible. This movie, however, is content to let the characters talk. This incidental dialogue lets the audience into the lives of the characters. Also, the discussions of basketball seem accurate in the technical details. A lot of sports movies include only those technical discussions that are needed for the audience to understand key moments in the competitions. This movie lets the characters talk about the subject that absorbs them. (It seems inaccurate, though, that a basketball coach wouldn’t wear a bra; Crown International, however, has a breast quota for their films, I’m sure.)

Some of these moments without obvious conflict drag the movie down. While it’s interesting to see San Diego Clipper Sidney Wicks (playing himself) give the team a basketball lesson, the scene stops the movie dead for about five minutes.

The two musical montages would be considered hackneyed filmmaking nowadays. We see the team on a winning streak to an upbeat number, and, as typical of movies from that era, there’s a montage about the romantic relationship in the film to a song that’s very 1970s AM radio. But I kind of like the songs. And as worn-out as they are, I like musical montages in films. Sometimes, movie techniques become clichés because they’re effective. Yet, other clichéd elements, like the use of slow-motion for running on the beach and for key moments in the big game, seem awkward and obvious.

The romantic relationship would be problematic in a movie today. To our 21st century eyes, having an affair with one of her players makes Randy seem unprofessional and undercuts the film’s point that, despite being a woman, she is more than capable of doing her job as coach. The movie requires us modern viewers to set aside our reservations. It helps that Biehn, who was 22 at the time, doesn’t look like a teenager. We’re also aided by the characterization of Jack. He seems mature, refusing to participate in the hijinks of his teammates. He gives us the sense that he’s above it all, without appearing arrogant.

This movie could never be made today. Filmmakers and audience members are too jaded to let a movie get away with as much clumsiness as this film shows. But, if we stash away our cynicism, the film is enjoyable. The characters are likeable. The underdogs win. Everyone has a good time.

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