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Review: 'Champions'

Champions is based on the Spanish film Campeones that was released back in 2018.

The new version is was directed by Bobby Farrelly. It stars Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson and Ernie Hudson.

It’s s feel-good sports themed movie about redemption and rediscovery. Movies like this are always in the pipeline, it seems. Audiences never tire of this story, particularly when it is told with real heart.

Champions is one of those movies. It’s a reminder of how good movies like this can be when they are done with intelligence and sensitivity that never gets in the way of the entertainment and fun.

Champions is the story of an aspiring assistant basketball coach (Woody Harrlson) trying to make it to the NBA. An altercation with the team’s coach (Ernie Hudson) gets him fired. His trip to the local bar and the DUI that follows lands him in court when the judge offers him a choice between months of hard time or 90 days of community service, coaching youth basketball. The catch is that the kids are special needs kids with intellectual disabilities. He grudgingly accepts the coaching offer.

What follows is a movie plot that could have gone in a dozen ways due to the subject matter. It could have been pandering, condescending, exploitative or a number of things that would have made it a bad, cringe-worthy movie experience.

To its credit, Champions is none of those things.

Instead, it is a story with sensitivity and humanity that delivers an upbeat, feel-good message. The script largely avoids all the pitfalls that would have derailed a story like this.

Woody is man with much to learn. His former boss tells him that he’s more about winning that building real relationships with his players.

His community service affords him the opportunity to do exactly that. It teaches him humanity and some degree of humility. Along the way he discovers that a one-night stand (Kaitlin Olson) is the very attractive older sister of one of his new players, Johnny.

It’s a difficult start for a man on a long road to redemption. Granted, it’s a familiar story line. The challenge here is to make it honest and real.

Champions makes that happen by casting young actors with intellectual disabilities. It’s a creative decision that is immediately apparent in the movie trailers. These aren’t kids pretending to have disabilities. They are kids who you get to know and like on their own terms.

And while it’s a gutsy decision to take this direction, the question remains as to whether the casting is meant to garner sympathy from the audience or whether these young actors are able to turn in the performances that their roles require.

Once again, Champions delivers with regard to the acting challenges and chemistry that a movie like this requires.

The performances are solid, across the boards. The script presents them as real kids with real problems and the real-life challenges and obstacles that go along with that. They are kids looking for comaraderie and coaching that can help them achieve their goal of having a winning team and some degree of pride and accomplishment.

There is some degree of built-in predictability in movies like Champions: whether the protagonist will be successful, whether the boy gets the girl, whether the team goes on to win the big championship game. To its credit, Champions tosses in twists and surprises that give the story an added level of reality and truth and believability.

It’s not entirely what you expect. But it is entirely entertaining and satisfying.

At the center of the movie is the relationship between Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olsen, the couple who seem so mismatched, yet the couple that the audience is rooting for in terms of their sweet, romantic connection. They make it work, with a lot of subtlety and nuance. Both deserve a lot of credit, as does director Bobby Farrelly who manages to steer the movie past all the obstacles that might have brought it down.

In the end, Champions is a sweet, feel-good movie that is heartwarming and heartfelt. It is both sweet and sincere.

It’s that sports-themed redemption movie that we all like to see from time to time.


Champions is in theaters now.

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