Yep. I’m a confirmed volleyball nerd. As such, I’ve been collecting volleyball movies for years with the intention of someday having a volleyball movie marathon. Unfortunately, those plans were sidelined when I moved to San Diego as my choices were (a) build my dream home theater speakers in my garage, or (b) go to the beach and get some games in.
Guess what, (b) won every time, so no, you won’t be coming to my house any time soon for a volleyball movie marathon. But for the record, I have identified 12 movies for the serious volleyball connoisseur.
And no, I’m not counting Cast Away. One guy and a cheap, plastic Wilson ball doesn’t count.
And neither does the pool volleyball scene from Meet the Parents, although it does have the memorable line “It’s just a game, Focker!”
And of course, I’m not counting volleyball documentaries, even memorable ones like Courtney Thompson’s Court and Spark.
The 12 I’ve found, and if I’ve missed any, let me know in the comments: Air Bud Spikes Back, All You’ve Got, Beach Kings (also called Green Flash), Cloud 9, Girls With Balls, Impact Point, Kill Shot (also called P.C.H.), Miles, Side Out, Spiker, The Miracle Season and Top Gun.
To keep this manageable, I’ll review the movies in four articles starting with Spiker, The Miracle Season, and Girls With Balls.
IMDB rating: 4.0/10
Focus on volleyball: 9/10
Volleyball Realism: 8/10
MPAA Rating: R, 104 minutes
Trailer: Not available
Watch it: VHS, Amazon Prime Video (Included w/membership, $.49/rent, $3.49/own HD, $1.49/own SD)
If you’re a fan of 1980s indoor volleyball, this is a must watch. Not necessarily because it’s a great movie, but it’s a nostalgic time capsule back into the men’s USA Olympic teams of the 1980s. Spiker is the grandfather of all volleyball movies.
It features the national-team stars of yesteryear, including Karch Kiraly, Pat Powers, Steve Salmons, Dusty Dvorak, Rod Wilde, Steve Timmons, Bill Neville, and many more. It was filmed in San Diego, with many of the training scenes at the Federal Building in Balboa Park.
You’ll recognize many of the classic training techniques of the 1980s, such as the Russian Leaper, box jumps, and the old favorite, coach on one.
The plot follows Sonny Reston (Stephan Burns), Catch Viecelli (Patrick Houser), and Newt (Christopher Allport), who seek spots on the Olympic roster.
Released in June of 1986, Dusty and Wendi Dvorak are associate producers. Dusty, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, was one of the top setters of his time, winning the NCAA championship with USC in 1977 and 1980. He was introduced to the world of cinema by his father-in-law, Roger Tilton.
“Roger was a movie-maker, not in the sense of a George Lucas or Dino Laurentis, but produced sales and training films, and started early in the development of IMAX. One of his dreams was always to do a full-length feature,” said Dusty.
“I think he saw the opportunity when we sat around the dinner table every night, and talked about the Olympic volleyball qualification process, the stories, adventures, personalities, and all the different aspects of the journey we went through.”
The movie biz has always been difficult, but Dvorak acknowledges that sports movies are even more so.
“There’s probably 100 sports movies for every Brian’s Song or Rudy that does really well. Spiker wasn’t on that level, it didn’t have the financial support for big-name talent like a lot of full-length features had.
“In those days it was a lot harder to put together a movie. Now we have people putting together feature-length movies on iPhones. It’s totally different. Theatrical releases were much more difficult then. If you didn’t bring the crowds out, and didn’t get the wide distribution, it was extremely hard, where now you just have to sell it to a streaming service.”
The movie was shot on a shoe-string budget in about three to four months. It had an extremely limited theater release, and largely went straight to DVD. Unusually, the movie is presented in a 4:3 TV ratio rather than a more typical 1:85 DVD or movie ratio, so millennials need not adjust their TV sets.
“If you don’t have the budget, that’s what happens,” Dvorak said. “Features are not cheap to produce. You have the sound editors, editor, script writer, the coach (Coach Doames, played by Michael Parks, who acted in the Kill Bill movies) was considered a talented A-/B+ actor, but it was difficult to cast actors that could act and play volleyball. You can’t find actors that know what they’re doing playing volleyball.
“We would have liked to have Tom Selleck (Selleck was a competent outside hitter on some of the Outrigger Canoe Club USVBA teams of the era). He was a big deal back then, but we couldn’t afford him. The others had the look and age, if not necessarily the skill to fit the role.
“I don’t want to say who it is, but one of the actors couldn’t even walk normally, let alone look like an athlete.”
Dvorak, the principal broker in a number of small companies, has been active in all aspects of real estate, including development, investment, sales, and property management. Back then there was no television coverage and very little mainstream media coverage of volleyball, so one of Dvorak’s goals was to increase the sport’s profile.
“I wore many hats, not only in the movie, but in training, and trying to prepare for the Olympics. I had the title associate producer, but acted more in the technical advisor role, giving context to the story line. Volleyball was, and still is, such an underexposed sport. Now, you can spend a bunch of hours on the internet, and become an expert on a topic. In those days you learned about things from encyclopedias. My expertise helped produce something that made sense and created interest.”
Although some of the characters resemble some of the players of that era, Dvorak says that those resemblances are superficial.
“It basically was a combination of little stories, a multitude of players that evolved. You can’t say that a character is just Hov, it could have been a little Sinjin, it could have been a little Stoklos, a little Kirk Kilgour, or Tom Chamales. There were tens and hundreds of personalities through many years of volleyball that made up each character.”
In some ways, Dvorak’s career resembles one of the plot lines in Spiker, where a player faces the choice to play beach or indoor.
“I was originally just a beach player, I grew up on beach volleyball, but I choose indoors because at that time the sky was the limit in indoor,” Dvorak said. “The sky meaning the ability to be the best in the world, and play in the Olympics, where at that time the beach was winning chairs and $500 and sleeping on the beach during a tournament.”
One of the world’s top setters, Dvorak was a prized commodity in Italy, where he played through 1993.
“I’ll never regret my decision to play indoor. My love for indoor volleyball was probably a five, but it was an incredible future and the chance to conquer the world. I wasn’t a big partier, and that part of the beach lifestyle didn’t appeal to me. I chose that route and I’m really glad I chose it.”
In one Spiker scene, the script called for Dvorak to get six-packed by a spike. To further dramatize the scene, they used simulated blood capsules, explained Dvorak.
“This was before movie magic and CG. We had these capsules that you would put in your mouth to get the right blood. So we had a bunch of takes of them throwing the volleyball at my face, and it would hit my forehead, or the chest, and finally I got hit in the nose and got the capsule to explode at the right time, and the blood started pouring out, it was hard to get that to look real. It probably looks really hokey.” (That scene begins at 1:06:47)
Although Dvorak still plays daily, he hasn’t really followed volleyball closely.
“I’ve moved into a different chapter of life. I probably show up at a volleyball match once every 10 years. I’m generally fairly reluctant. I still love volleyball, I play it every day, I love the sport, but as far as attending sports and reliving the old days, I still have incredible memories. I really let go of volleyball, especially when I lived in Park City, Utah, for 10 years.”
Dusty and wife Wendi are currently sheltering in place at their home in Laguna Beach with their three kids, Stormy (27), Summer (22), and Drake (19).
“My wife and I are on the other end of the scale. Our family is home, we sit at the dinner table, share stories, and pull out old movies. I don’t think I’ve watched Spiker in 30 years.
“We’ve kind of been exhausting our NetFlix options, I think we’ll put Amazon Prime on and try and get through Spiker.”
The Miracle Season
IMDB rating: 6.5/10
Focus on volleyball: 7/10
Volleyball Realism: 7/10
Box office receipts (per IMDB.com): $10,230,620
MPAA Rating: PG, 101 minutes
Available: BluRay (Canada), DVD , Amazon Prime Video ($2.49/rent, $8.49/own)
In March 2018, Megan Kaplon wrote about Miracle Season and it was the single-most clicked-on piece on VolleyballMag.com for the entire year. What follows are excerpts from that story.
Every day after practice, Iowa City West’s girls volleyball coach Kathy Bresnahan went home and took notes about which drills worked and which fell flat. Particularly effective ones were highlighted by a giant star in the margin. By the end of a season, Bresnahan could fill entire notebooks with her musings.
But a week into the 2011 season, her notes started to take a very different form. That was when West’s star setter and emotional leader, Caroline Found, died in a moped accident, and 12 days later, Caroline’s mother Ellyn, who had been active in the community and with the team, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer.
The team was devastated.
“There was no sense in writing about our practices because they were just useless,” Bresnahan said, “so I started going home every night and writing up the emotions that we were going through.”
Those notes proved to be extremely valuable a few years later when Bresnahan wrote a book about Caroline and that 2011 team, titled The Miracle Season. And now a Hollywood movie by the same name hits theaters April 6, starring Academy Award-winners Helen Hunt and William Hurt.
The first hurdle for director Sean McNamara to cross in hopes of creating volleyball’s classic sports movie was casting. It won’t come as a surprise that talented young actresses with elite volleyball experience were few and far between.
“The challenge for me was finding actors who could play volleyball, because you don’t want for a second for people to think that it doesn’t look right,” McNamara said. “At first, I was thinking I could teach people to play volleyball, and I quickly realized that you can’t teach people that quickly to be great at a sport.”
The solution turned out to casting based on acting ability for the leading roles — with Danika Yarosh playing Caroline Found and Erin Moriarty portraying Kelly, the player who takes over the setting position — then finding some actors with volleyball experience for the roles with a limited number of lines.
Then McNamara filled out the rest of the team with what he calls the “full kick-butt volleyball players.”
Once the characters had been cast, McNamara handed them off to Claire Hanna, a Canadian national-team libero, who was hired to serve as volleyball coach and choreographer for the film. (Former USA national-teamer Kim Glass fulfilled the same role during the portion of the movie that was filmed in Los Angeles)
Hanna knew she didn’t have time to make these teenagers with little-to-no volleyball experience into state-champion volleyball players, but she had to make them good enough to fake it on camera.
“I didn’t really care about the outcome of the ball, whether it was set out to the power hitter or fell in between middle and power, because we could slow that down in Hollywood,” Hanna said. “But what we couldn’t change was how their hand position and body looked in a slo-mo scene.”
The actors playing the West team members weren’t the only ones who needed coaching.
Hanna also helped Hunt learn to walk and talk the role of a volleyball coach. Hunt, who admitted that she has no hands-on experience with volleyball, but loves watching the sport every four years in the Olympics, sat stoically on the bench the first day of filming. Hanna told her to get up, walk around, get right up to the edge of the court and encourage the players with lines like, “Close the block,” “Move your feet,” “Reach higher,” things that to a volleyball player seem obvious, but were a foreign language to an actress.
Hunt also took full advantage of the opportunity to learn from Bresnahan herself. Hunt had her diction coach call Bresnahan and talk to him on the phone for hours so Hunt could get the high school coach’s way of speaking just right.
“Can you get this Wisconsin accent down?” Bresnahan joked. “You gotta drag your Rs and whatever. Say ‘warsh,’ I guess.” Hunt also asked Bresnahan to send video of her walking.
“She just so immersed herself in the role,” Bresnahan said of Hunt. “I think she really got what it means to be a coach with a team.”
When you see The Miracle Season, you’ll have to suspend disbelief about the ability of this particular group of girls to win an Iowa state championship. As volleyball people, you won’t be able to resist making snide remarks about some of the awkward serves and flailing one-arm dig attempts.
Even Bresnahan admits that Moriarty never really got the setting technique down.
“But how do you throw someone who has never been an athlete into that setter role?” Bresnahan asked, admitting that the 23-year-old actress was assigned a tough gig. “I think volleyball fans are going to love it if they can get past the couple of shots with Erin setting.”
So don’t let the mediocre volleyball technique ruin it for you, because there’s a lot more to this film than just West’s wins and losses on the way to back-to-back state titles. For the more authentic volleyball story, read Bresnahan’s book, which contains specific details from matches and practices and will more than satisfy your inner volleyball nerd.
Even on fake volleyball teams, competing in staged matches, special bonds are created between teammates, something Hunt and the other actors in The Miracle Season experienced first-hand.
“What I didn’t really know until Coach Brez pointed it out to me is just in the way the huddle happens before each point, (volleyball) is a particularly rich team sport,” Hunt said, “and women’s volleyball in particular is just punctuated by support for each other, so that’s pretty incredible.”
The women portraying the West High players felt that support and that bond, and are now best friends, with some of the actors even getting ready to be in one teammate’s upcoming wedding.
Bresnahan has big expectations and high hopes for the movie, not only because it honors the life of an incredible young woman who meant a lot to her personally and to many people in the Iowa City community, but also because it celebrates strong female athletes who almost never get portrayed in Hollywood films.
“I’m hoping that the volleyball community gets out and supports the movie, and that women athletes do,” Bresnahan said.
“If we want more movies about us, we’ve got to get out there and support it, no matter what the sport is.”
Girls With Balls
IMDB rating: 3.8/10
Focus on volleyball: 3/10
Volleyball Realism: 2/10
MPAA Rating: NR, 77 minutes
Trailer: Click this link
As you might expect from the title, this movie is something quite different, and no, it’s not deviant porn. It was originally filmed in French, dubbed in English. To preserve whatever cinematic integrity might exist, I recommend watching it in the original French with English subtitles.
The Falcons girls volleyball team heads off on a road trip for its next match. Before you know it, the team is trapped in degenerate hunters’ territory and are fighting for their lives. Meanwhile, the film is interspersed with a solo cowboy folk guitarist providing commentary.
The movie is kind of a Pulp Fiction meets Monty Python. Campy? Bizarre? Gory? Satiric? Yes to all. Incredibly, the movie has earned three awards: Best SFX and Best kill at the Grimmest film festival, as well as being nominated for the Best Feature Film at the Paris International Fantastic Film Festival. Remind me not to go to the Grimmest film festival.
It’s 77 minutes. You won’t be able to look away, though you’ll want to.
Jeanne (Tiphaine Daviot, Une Belle histoire) and Morgane (Manon Azem, Burn Out) are at odds, competing for Serge’s affections. Their coach (Victor Artus Solaro, Le Bureau des Legendes) is trying to keep the fractious team together.
There’s very little volleyball in the movie, with the Falcons defeating their opponents to open the movie. However, the team does come back with beheading spikes (!) later on in the movie. (That scene starts at 52:47 if you can’t make it through the entire flick)
I’m not saying it’s a “good” movie, but it is something you’ve never seen before. Decide for yourself if that something is worthwhile. Settle down with the cheapest beer you can find, or perhaps a nice box of wine. You’ll be glad you did. And amazingly enough, if you want to learn more, there is a Facebook page followed by 3,006 people.
Wednesday: Top Gun, Cloud 9, Miles