Champions Review

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In between artlessness and genuine comedic fervor of the cast, well-meaning Champions is a movie that follows the life of a hot-headed basketball coach who seizes an opportunity when he is directed to coach a team with special needs after been demoted. It is a rare film in that it highlights mental disability in characters played by its disabled actors who are given much screen time. In response, there are few characters whose lives can be said to have weight besides the main character, making them incidental at best to his tale of self-discovery. The solo feature debut from Bobby Farrelly after co-directing box office comedies such as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber with his brother Peter suffers from lack of vision or perspective leading to sports-oriented comedy by numbers that gets away with itself mostly thanks to its charming supporting cast.

Before proceeding to deal with these aims in order without any possibility for imagination or fortuity, Champions outlines its emotional goals promptly through Mark Rizzo’s screenplay (adapted from Javier Fesser’s 2018 Spanish original Campeones which was based on real events). Woody Harrelson is good at portraying Marcus, the slimy assistant G League coach off the wagon having single-minded ambition for a top NBA position. However, he falls short of being close to his subjects; this aspect of him feels impersonal unlike Marcus’s friend Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson) who points out in great detail how exactly his antithesis has led himself into a complete mess.

As per Champions’ target of teaching Marcus how others must come first, it immediately introduces us to all disabled friends under his care known as “The Friends.” Many have Down syndrome while each has their own peculiarities but mainly want one thing: fun on court. This iron fist approach does not go down well with The Friends so he learns their various compulsions and routines. In most cases, the actors perform in ways that go beyond the “disabled” stereotype found in many Hollywood films.

Among The Friends, Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe) stands out as a braggart who from his opening line where he talks about his girlfriends, some of whom he names and goes further to describe their sexual preferences, makes it apparent that Champions would portray people with intellectual disabilities as human beings with normal desires such as having sex. Benny (James Day Keith) is diligent at work; there, however, he is ill-treated but blossoms when it comes to basketball. Showtime (Bradley Edens), for example, insists on reverse half-court shots and smiles regardless of any outcome. Nonetheless, most fascinating is what Constentino (Madison Tevlin’s character) knows about herself even if she keeps this knowledge private from others and acts just like the girl who has an explosion whenever she appears anything else than that. If not a lot of roles are created for Tevlin due to her role in Champions then it will be regrettable.

Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) is one of the disabled characters with most screen time and he acts on behalf of this group as their de facto leader. In common with Tevlin, Iannucci’s timing and delivery are hilariously funny but his character does not have a lot of confidence in himself. But it is indirectly that Johnny comes to be such a significant part of the story. Marcus who quickly tries to become a better coach when he sees The Friends’ enthusiasm, also gets involved with Johnny’s older sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson), whose patience and kindness towards Johnny make her exactly opposite for Marcus’ journey of self-improvement. Although largely functional, Olson fills the role with nuance – her overbearing fears about Johnny’s safety serve as an interesting point of contention, but less so for him than for Marcus.

One major challenge with Champions is that every other person has idiosyncrasies which revolve around Marcus’ reactions; their flaws, misgivings or ultimate triumphs are defined by his limited character development from outset. Scenes without Harrelson’s presence are short-lived and infrequent despite many disabled characters getting to say some things about themselves. Consequently, since Farrelly has a preference for plain visual staging, their group conversations descend quickly into mechanical rhythms where it appears they just exist to deliver punchlines before edit cuts away often to Harrelson’s reaction shots even after the ensemble cast has shown they can carry comic scenes as well as abled actors.

Sometimes capturing people living with disabilities or playing roles in television shows who achieve victories or enjoy success may have an inherently feel-good quality but this only holds true if we consider them through abled eyes for the most part. Admittedly, this approach aims at enabling able viewers live through Marcus who easily accepts characters with Down syndrome after having been one dropping the ‘R-word’ himself then suckerpunching anybody else who does, although it reduces the actual “learning” part to a secondary matter. The journey toward Marcus’ greater understanding is an internal and passive one that rarely zeroes in on or explores this process, and thus, Champions’ focus on Marcus limits our ability to really care about or know the supporting ensemble in any depth except for how their personalities are perceived by others.

Their introduction makes it easy to love them at first since they are such lively characters – visually speaking it cannot be stressed enough how much life and zest they bring to scenes that might otherwise lack these qualities – but beyond this Champions offers nothing more than surface representations of interiority. On occasion Champions will briefly hint at the types of emotional complexities involved in living with Down syndrome – family dynamics, employment and housing concerns — even though instead of incorporating these complexities into Johnny’s and Benny’s emotional journeys, these ideas serve as window dressing for Marcus and Alex.

The camera enables the disabled performers to act vivaciously in group shots, but there is hardly any instance where the lens gets close enough to capture the beating human hearts and emotional intelligence which their characters so obviously possess – rather this would have made for a more gripping story than one of lukewarm self-improvement attained with relative ease. To begin with, Champions may be primarily about Marcus, and it’s certainly sweet and hilarious at times. Nonetheless, it constantly poses an inevitable question whether giving equal depth or story focus involving its supporting cast as in their ongoing scenes could have made it realize its potential of being uproarious and heartwarming sports saga.


Champions is a feel-good film that features talented disabled actors who deserve recognition as novel sports comedies given its predictable plot. An ill-tempered basketball coach who initially refuses to train people with Down syndrome; Woody Harrelson plays his role so well only to fall short by having him develop in a rigid linear way like that leaves the other superbly casted actors whose timing for comedy is almost remarkable feeling like such untapped resources.

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