Champions review: a really quite lovely sports drama

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Woody Harrelson plays a basketball coach court ordered to teach a team with intellectual disabilities in Champions – here’s our review.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect Bobby Farrelly, director of comedies like Dumber And Dumber To and Shallow Hal, to make a genuinely heartfelt and feel good film like Champions. The latter in particular, which saw Jack Black magicked into seeing beyond appearances, contains a lot of jokes that haven’t aged particularly well. To have Farrelly attached to Champions – a film about a tempermental basketball coach being forced to teach a team with intellectual disabilities – raised some questions about how its protagonists would be treated. 

Those concerns were, as it turns out, completely unfounded. Champions is a genuinely lovely drama about each character discovering what they’re capable of.

Based on the 2018 Spanish film of the same name (directed by Javier Fesser and written by  David Marqués, who are credited on this movie), Woody Harrelson plays former minor-league basketball coach Marcus Marakovich, who lands himself 90 days of community service after a DUI incident. In that 90 days, he must coach a local group of players with intellectual disabilities.

It’s no surprise that Harrelson is playing a bit of a nasty piece of work here, and it’s a role he does extremely well. But he’s also very charismatic, and it doesn’t take long for a human side of the character to peer through the cracks. 

Champions could have easily focused its lens on Harrelson’s character – the transformation from arsehole to nice guy being a tale that’s been told many times over. To its credit, the movie decides to make this transition quick so that it can focus on its true stars. 

Basketball team The Friends is made up of a wide array of people – among them are Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), Darius (Joshua Felder), Benny (James Day Keith), Cosentino (Madison Tevlin) and Showtime (Bradley Edens). They’re a well-rounded group of characters and Champions gives plenty of time to developing their lives on and off the basketball court. 

Julio (Cheech Marin), who runs the community centre, handily summarises the hobbies and living situation of each player – Johnny volunteers at an animal shelter and lives with sister Alex (Kaitlin Olsen), Benny lives on his own and works as a kitchen porter at a restaurant, and Cody (Ashton Gunning) has a band.

This is a fast (and perhaps a bit lazy) way of getting us quickly acquainted with all of these characters, but these introductions also lay the groundwork for several important plot points and story arcs to come. There’s a lot going on in these character’s lives, but the screenplay from writer Mark Rizzo juggles it all without sacrificing the film’s pacing, and sees that each arc is carried through to its conclusion in a satisfying way.  

From there, Champions chronicles The Friends’ development, both in terms of their basketball ability and their relationships with each other and Marcus. It’s a journey full of ups and downs, and with plenty of humour, too. But, importantly, the character’s disabilities are never, ever the butt of the joke. There are some really excellent comedic performances in this film, with Madison Tevlin and Matthew Van Der Ahe (as Craig) being the standouts. Tevlin in particular excels at playing the straight-talking, blunt and frankly badass Cosentino.

While the film stresses how capable these characters are, it also takes occasional moments to deal with the ongoing stigma faced by disabled athletes. The great thing here is that Champions doesn’t wrestle with this issue – it decisively shuts it down and shows intolerance the door.  

The most lovely thing about Champions is seeing the bond that develops between all of the characters and watching them all – Marcus included – gain confidence in what they’re able to achieve. It’s a very linear and unsurprising film, but it’s also so incredibly kindhearted and provides all of the necessary tension, too.  

Champions is aptly named, as it’s a tale that illustrates how anyone and everyone can be just that. It left me with a big grin on my face, and really, isn’t that what cinema is meant to do? 

Champions is in cinemas on 10th March.

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