A well-meaning film torn between artistic plainness and its actors’ sincere, amusing pep, Champions follows a temperamental basketball coach who turns a demotion into an opportunity when he’s placed in charge of a team of players with special needs. On one hand, it’s a rare showcase for several talented actors with mental disabilities, and they are given a large chunk of the screen time. On the other, their characters – aside from the able protagonist – are rarely afforded much weight, resulting in a story where they are, at best, incidental to his tale of self-improvement. Either way, director Bobby Farrelly’s solo debut – after sharing duties on hit comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber alongside brother Peter – suffers from a lack of direction or perspective, resulting in a paint-by-numbers sports comedy that, thankfully, gets by on the charm of its unique supporting cast.
From a screenplay by Mark Rizzo (who adapted the story from Javier Fesser’s 2018 Spanish original Campeones, itself based on real events) Champions quickly lays out its emotional objectives before tackling each one in a manner that leaves little room for possibility or spontaneity. Woody Harrelson is adept at playing the smarmy and off-the-wagon G League assistant coach Marcus, and he captures his character’s narrow professional drive toward a coveted NBA job with aplomb. He lacks a personal touch, a dynamic his friend and kindly head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson) lays out in long-winded detail as Marcus derails himself.
With the goal of Marcus learning to put other people first, Champions quickly introduces its roster of disabled players and puts him in charge of their team, called “The Friends.” Many of them have Down syndrome, each has their own idiosyncrasies, and all simply want to have fun on the court. Marcus’ iron-fisted approach gels poorly with The Friends, so he has no choice but to get in step with them and learn their various compulsions and routines. In several delightful sequences, the actors display a range of personalities well beyond the categorization of “disabled,” to which they’re often reduced in Hollywood movies.
The standout among The Friends is Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe), whose boastful claims of having several girlfriends (and unapologetic detailing of what they enjoy in bed) makes it immediately clear that Champions is willing to apply a realistic lens to the mentally disabled, whose cinematic depictions often rob them of basic human characteristics like libidos. There’s the diligent Benny (James Day Keith), who silently endures abuse at his restaurant job but blooms on the court. There’s Showtime (Bradley Edens), who smilingly insists on backward half-court shots and celebrates no matter what the outcome. And perhaps the most magnetic of the bunch is Constentino (Madison Tevlin), a highly self-aware, no-nonsense “it girl” who’s an absolute firecracker in every scene. (It would be a shame if Champions doesn’t result in a litany of roles for Tevlin).
The disabled character with the most screen time is Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who acts as the team’s de facto leader and mouthpiece. Like Tevlin, Iannucci’s delivery and timing are marvelously funny, though his character is far less secure in his everyday life. However, the reason Johnny becomes such a major part of the story is, unfortunately, indirect. Marcus, though he quickly strives to become a better coach upon seeing The Friends’ enthusiasm, also becomes involved with Johnny’s older sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson), whose kindness and patience with Johnny turn her into the perfect foil for Marcus’ journey of self-improvement. Olson brings nuance to what is largely a function-first part – her overbearing fears surrounding Johnny’s safety become an intriguing point of contention, though less for Johnny than for Marcus.
A major issue with Champions is that everyone’s quirks are in service of Marcus’ reactions; their flaws, their doubts, and even their eventual victories are framed largely in relation to his limited character arc as laid out from the beginning. Despite allowing its many disabled characters to tell us about themselves, scenes in which any of them appear without Harrelson’s presence are both fleeting and rare. So, given Farrelly’s penchant for unremarkable visual staging, their group conversations fall quickly into rote rhythms where they seem to exist only to deliver punchlines before the edit cuts away (usually to Harrelson’s reaction shots), even after the supporting cast has proven they can carry comedic scenarios just as well as abled actors.
There’s often an inherent feel-good quality to simply capturing disabled actors and characters enjoying success and overcoming hurdles, but the lens through which this is in any way true is primarily an abled one. Granted, the objective of employing this lens is to provide a gateway for able viewers to live vicariously through Marcus as he quickly learns to accept characters with Down syndrome, going from someone who drops the R-word himself to suckerpunching anyone who does, but it renders the actual “learning” part a secondary concern. Not only is Marcus’ journey to better understanding a passive, internal process that’s rarely zeroed in on or explored, but in keeping Marcus’ perspective entirely central, Champions rarely offers us the chance to empathize with or learn about the supporting ensemble in much detail, at least beyond how their personalities are experienced by those around them.
It’s a good thing what little time we’re afforded with them as individuals makes it easy to appreciate them at the outset – it cannot be overstated how much life and zest the supporting cast bring to scenes that are otherwise lacking in visual energy – but the buck stops there as far as their interior lives are concerned. Champions often dips its toe into nuance, offering hints of the kind of emotional complexities that arise from living with disabilities like Down syndrome – from familial complications, to questions of employment, lodging, and independence – but rather than folding these complexities into the emotional journeys of characters like Johnny and Benny, these ideas become mere garnishing for Marcus and Alex.
The camera may offer the disabled cast the chance to perform with zest in group shots, but rarely does the lens get close enough to capture the beating humanity and emotional intelligence their characters so obviously possess – which would have made for a far more engaging story than one of lukewarm self-improvement achieved with relative ease. Champions may be primarily about Marcus to begin with, and it’s certainly sweet and amusing in spurts. But it constantly raises the unavoidable question of whether giving its supporting cast the same depth and story focus as him, in their existing scenes, might have helped it fulfill its potential as the uproarious and heartwarming sports saga it’s attempting to be.