Champions Review | A Solid Lay-up

by Andrew Parker

Charming and respectable, but more than a tad cliched, director Bobby Farrelly’s basketball dramedy Champions coasts along nicely thanks to its air of general likability and some well drawn characters. Although it’s built around a squad of exceptional athletes that aren’t usually the types of people showcased in such films, Farrelly and screenwriter Mark Rizzo hew closely to the established inspirational movie playbook. Not much is ever in doubt here, but the unique perspective and some wonderful performances make for breezy, feel good watching.

Woody Harrelson stars as Marcus, a hot-headed J-league assistant coach banished to Iowa after blowing several opportunities to coach at a higher level. Not long after losing his latest gig, following a physical altercation with the head coach (Ernie Hudson), Marcus is busted for driving under the influence. In lieu of a prison sentence, the court orders Marcus to perform community service by coaching a team of disabled people. Marcus begrudgingly agrees, biding his time until the clock runs out on his sentence and he can once again focus on his dreams of coaching in the NBA. But the players begin to win Marcus over with their abilities, outlooks, and personalities, and he starts taking his new role as coach and mentor more seriously. A crush on one of the player’s sisters, Alex (Kaitlin Olson), doesn’t hurt, either.

A remake of a highly successful Spanish film of the same name from 2018, Champions won’t turn any heads with its plotting or execution. Marcus will learn plenty about himself along the way; the players will navigate major life stresses and changes; the program (run by Cheech Marin) will face its own set of hardships in the form of financial setbacks; the romance between Harrelson and Olson will be an up and down one; it will all built to a big time championship game (which takes place in Winnipeg, where most of Champions was shot). Everything falls perfectly in line with expectation.

But the players aren’t beholden to a list of stock cliches about people with disabilities. The joy of Champions comes from learning about these wonderful people at the same rate Marcus does. While Harrelson is more or less the on screen general here (and it is nice to once again see him in a basketball movie and collaborating with one of the Farrelly brothers for the first time since their most successful comedy, Kingpin), and Olson does her fair share of heavy lifting as an aspiring actress stuck in a dead end town, it’s the team players that make Champions a delight to follow along with. Without them, the film doesn’t exist, and if they were just everyday neurotypical people hanging out at a rec centre, Champions wouldn’t have much to offer.

There aren’t enough superlatives to convey the delight of watching the supporting cast. Kevin Iannucci delivers a multilayered portrayal of Johnny, an animal lover and brother to Alex, who’s possibly looking to leave home for a more independent life in a group home alongside his friends. Joshua Felder is a commanding presence as the team’s star player, who has unspoken reasons as to why he refuses to play for Marcus. Canadian performer and model Madison Tevlin brings the heat as Cosentino, a tenacious, outspoken player capable of rallying the squad whenever Marcus can’t get through to them. Bradley Evans steals a bunch of scenes as the aptly named Showtime, a player who will hopefully one day land that trick shot he’s spent most of his on court career trying to master. The team is made up of a nice blend of professional actors, newcomers, and Special Olympics athletes that gives Champions a degree of plausibility. They are all unique in terms of their disposition and skill level, but remarkably understanding of one another. They feel like a legitimate team regardless of their skill level on the court.

Farrelly isn’t the showiest director, but Champions and its nicely captured rural settings doesn’t need to dazzle. It just needs to visually set a proper scene. Farrelly has been a public and outspoken advocate for the needs of people with disabilities, and this has the feeling of a passion project that just so happens to be wrapped up in a studio friendly package. It’s all about overcoming fears and learning to be a better person, and the on-the-nose soundtrack choices aren’t terribly inspired. (What’s a basketball comedy without “Sweet Georgia Brown?”) But Farrelly knows precisely where the focus belongs: on the team itself. And as long as the film doesn’t cross into offensive or condescending territory (in spite of some trademark Farrelly gross out moments and dirty jokes), Champions will have done its job.

About halfway through Champions, I still wasn’t sure what to think of it. I wasn’t captivated by the pat and neat nature of the storytelling, but I was always invested in these characters and where they were heading on their personal journeys. By the time the big game rolled around and everyone was experiencing the shift of the requisite major life decisions that were arising, I realized that Champions was a good movie that doesn’t do anything new, but also doesn’t do anything wrong. Not a great movie, but a good one that was harmless in all the right ways. On my way out of the screening I was smiling, and now when I think back on it, I do the same. That’s as successful as Champions needs to be.

Champions opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, March 10, 2023.

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