As a feel-good movie, Champions, the winsome new basketball comedy directed by Bobby Farrelly and starring Woody Harrelson, does its job; it consistently dispenses good feelings. Presented by Focus Features with a screenplay by Mark Rizzo, it’s a remake of the celebrated 2018 Spanish film Campeones by Javier Fesser. This American version (I have yet to see the original) wins no points for filmmaking or story structure originality. Still, it deserves an audience for its sincere commitment to a positive message, entertaining characters, great cast, and a gentle reminder that we and our society are better off when inclusivity is the norm.
The Champions story features Harrelson as a likable jerk (Marcus), a minor-league basketball coach with a chronic chip on his shoulder—mixed in with drunk driving. This mixture accelerates his diminished career and sends him to jail. Harrelson’s role asks very little of him as an actor except to allow the superb cast of ten actors with developmental disabilities (who constitute the basketball team he’s under a court order to coach for ninety days as community service) to shine. And shine, they do. Harrelson is successful in scene after scene, allowing even his love interest, played with fun snark and heart by Kaitlin Olson (of Always Sunny in Philadelphia mega-fame), to steal every scene they share.
Champions’ story follows several rags-to-riches, Hoosiers-We-Are-the-Titans film tropes, but who cares? Farrelly’s direction of the disabled actors brings new life to these clichés—you forget you’ve seen this all before. The basketball team, called “The Friends,” features Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, and Bradley Edens. Each of these actors carries the film, with special mentions to Kevin Iannucci (Johnny) in a featured role that helps drive (no spoilers) key moments, and Madison Telvin (Cosentino), who provides genuine laughs with sharp comic timing throughout.
Yes, this movie glosses over the lack of quality health care; scarcity of assisted living group homes; and sheltered employment opportunities that the Disabled community and their families face: but that’s a different movie. Instead, it reminds us to bring joy, wonder, and humility to our daily lives, no matter how mundane or unglamorous in coach Marcus’s world. Sentimentality aside, Champions encourages us to remain present with open hearts to appreciate our differences and common ground. And basketball, at whatever level, is just a fun game. There are worse ways to spend two hours: Champions is good fun and good company.
Stephan Koplowitz is a director/choreographer and the author of On Site-Methods for Site-Specific Performance Creation by day. By night, he’s an avid cinephile.