I was skeptical of Champions at first, the English remake of a Spanish film about a basketball coach rehabbing his career after a drug-involved arrest that nets him community service as a coach for some adults with special needs. It’s too easy to find stories like these in super shallow waters, making fun of the people it claims to be empowering, especially when someone like Bobby Farrelly of the Farrelly Brothers (Shallow Hal, Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) is making his solo directorial debut.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Woody Harrelson’s minor league basketball assistant coach Marcus Marakovich isn’t a good guy by any means, and he’s placed basketball above everything else. A one-night Tinder stand with Alex (Kaitlin Olson), a sideline altercation with his head coach (Ernie Hudson), and a drunk-driving accident wind up with Marcus coaching The Friends at a local rec center, searching for a new longtime job and balancing an attempt at relationships with Alex and a new team of basketball players. He’s in over his head, even if he knows a whole world full of basketball plays that his new team has never heard of before.
Marakovich’s new team is remarkably clever, thoughtful, and funny – well, at least the actors are, as each of the actors is a person with intellectual disabilities. The basketball is terrible; one player likes to only shoot over his head with his back to the basket and the best player won’t play for Marakovich. The team gets into hijinks together, and some of them are funny. Some of them remind the audience that the special needs adults are just like us with hopes, dreams, and sense of humor, as they get mistreated in character through the story.
The film won’t be for everyone – it’s not particularly family-friendly – but it’s a lot like watching Emilio Estevez in the original Mighty Ducks film or maybe Keanu Reeves in Hardball. But the acting chops of the folks who play members of Marakovich’s team lift this film to be above average in allowing us to see the shining gifts of those who may seem different than us.