Russian Film Festival: The Coach

Writers: Sergey Chetverukhin, Danila Kozlovsky, Andrey Zolotarev

Director: Danila Kozlovsky

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

One thing we know about sports films is they’re not really about sport at all, but tales of human endurance, adaptability and teamwork, often rescuing the lead character from some terrible personal circumstances or an equally difficult temperament. Daniel Kozlovsky’s new film The Coach showing as part of the Russian Film Festival and which he co-wrote, directs and stars, is no different but adds plenty of twists to an otherwise standard but enjoyable football drama.

After missing a crucial penalty, getting into a fight with the referee and causing a riot at the stadium, Yuri Stoleshnikov is suspended from the national team and his premiere division club for two years. In disgrace and with nothing to do, second division Meteor invite him to be their new coach, but the club is facing closure, and the players resent Yuri’s arrival, especially knowing he’s only treading water until he can play again.

One danger of these kinds of film is that it could be too niche, only appealing to fans with enough knowledge to understand the rules and terminology of the particular sport, but Kozlovsky’s approach manages just the right balance of pitch-based action and human-interest story without weighing down the plot with too many football-specific terms. The result is a film that focuses primarily on character, a redemptive tale that will equally appeal to those who have never understood or enjoyed football [guilty!].

The Coach uses the sport-film conventions but gives them a bit of a boost, so having Yuri still young and healthy enough to play for Russia adds an extra edge to his motivation. And while the underdog-makes-good story for the team is never terribly surprising, whether Kozlovsky chooses a personally satisfying conclusion in which Yuri overcomes his demons or stays with the team he professionalises remains ambiguous for much of the film – it’s never guaranteed that the two outcomes are commensurate, adding an additional strand of drama that holds the attention despite the near 2.5 hour runtime.

With more or less a single voice at the helm, this naturally becomes a one-man story, meaning the surrounding cast and their individual roles never fully develop. Irina Gorbachova’s female manager Lara has the potential to be a much larger influence on Yuri’s direction but we never quite get to grips with her motivation, while Olya Zueva is an unconvincing team doctor but a pretty face for Yuri to fall in love with.

This is Kozlovsky’s film and he really delivers in the central role, creating a complex protagonist who is equally frustrating and sympathetic. Making the coach a potential player in his own right allows Kozlovsky to show the internal division within Yuri, initially a bad boy who leaves football altogether while ever-struggling to live up to his adored father’s expectations. As he derives some satisfaction from the training role, the audience warms to him very quickly and while the subplots are underwritten Kozlovsky’s Yuri is convincing and ultimately sympathetic.

The visual effects combined with Fedor Lyass’ cinematography gets right into the action during the football sequences. Wearing his director’s hat Kozlovsky cuts between the soundless television relay and the roar of the stadium to build tension in the various match sequences. With a few updates to the genre, The Coach is an engaging and very human examination of professional football, making this a worthy Closing Gala at this year’s Russian Film Festival.

Release Date: 2 December 2018

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Redemptive drama

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