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Review: Champions (2023)

Champions (2023)

Directed by: Bobby Farrelly

Premise: A minor league basketball coach (Woody Harrelson) is court ordered to manage a team of developmentally disabled players.

What Works: Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record with movies about developmentally disabled characters. Even films that are well intentioned have tended to use developmentally disabled characters as props for cheap sentimentality and for protagonists (and by extension the filmmakers and the audience) to prove their virtue. While there is a bit of that in Champions, the filmmakers demonstrate some awareness of that history, working it into the drama. The filmmakers also seem earnestly interested in the disabled characters. They have cast actors with developmental disabilities to play these roles and the story makes a point of demonstrating that these people have lives of their own. Some of the standout performers include Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, who overcomes his phobia of water, James Day Keith as Benny, who works in a restaurant and copes with a difficult boss, and Madison Tevlin as Cosentino, a woman with Down Syndrome who becomes a leader on the team. Also impressive is Kaitlin Olson as Alex, the sister of Johnny and who becomes the love interest of Woody Harrelson’s character. Olson gets many of the best lines and she has great comic delivery. Champions is intended to be a feel-good movie and it accomplishes that. The filmmakers understand the kind of movie they are making and do so with humor and humanism that makes for a nice viewing experience.

What Doesn’t: Champions works from a familiar narrative template in which an irascible coach is paired with a ragtag group of athletes and must turn them into champions while softening his demeanor. This movie follows that formula exactly. There are no surprises here. In fact, the story is contorted in an effort to accommodate all the conventions. Some of the character’s choices don’t make sense, especially the coach telling his players that he’s leaving the team right before the big championship game. There’s not a whole lot at stake. In an effort to be inclusive and uplifting, the coach tells everyone that they are champions just by trying and being brave. That sounds nice but it also devalues the game. Very little is actually won or lost in this story. The aversion to dramatic stakes makes Champions lightweight to a fault.

Disc extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes, and a commentary track.

Bottom Line: Champions isn’t intend to be anything more than a feel-good sports drama in the tradition of Hoosiers and Rudy and Inside Moves. It’s never as engaging or memorable as those films but Champions is affable enough to accomplish its modest aims.

Episode: #973 (November 12, 2023)