Feel-good and entirely life-affirming without becoming saccharine, Champions sinks almost every shot.
When minor-league basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is sentenced to 90 days community service coaching the Friends, a team of players with intellectual disabilities, he's dumped as far as it gets from his NBA dreams. But against the odds, the Friends show Marcus that the champion spirit doesn't always come from fame or success, but rather courage, love, and loyalty. Based on the 2018 Spanish film Campeones and the true story of Special Olympics team Aderes of Valencia, it's impossible not to smile your way through Champions.
The ground Champions covers is already well-trodden. It features a loveable grump as its protagonist, his inevitable redemption arc, and a humbling reminder of all there is to appreciate in the world around you. These stories are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't make Champions any less deserving of praise. There are a couple of hurdles the film has to clear before it hits its stride, namely a slow start, and an unnecessary, cringe-inducing courtroom scene about ‘boo-boo words' which adds little to the overall plot. Nevertheless, Champions' true strength lies with the Friends, and by the time they are introduced these issues are long-forgotten.
Despite being spearheaded by Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, Champions is at its heart an ensemble piece. Mark Rizzo's screenplay is crammed with snappy dialogue and zingy witticisms between the Friends and their new coach, all of which are delivered with impeccable comic timing. There isn't a member of this ensemble that lets the team down – pun intended – but Kevin Iannucci (Frank), and newcomers Joshua Felder (Darius) and James Day Keith (Benny) must especially be commended for their heartfelt performances. Woody Harrelson delivers his classic rough-around-the-edges schtick as Champions' rogue hero, whilst Kaitlin Olson offers a refreshing vulnerability to the piece, setting her up as the perfect foil to Harrelson's Marcus.
Impressive performances across the board, an uplifting (if predictable) story, and a carefully curated soundtrack of iconic hits combine to set Champions firmly on a winning streak. Feel-good and entirely life-affirming, Champions manages not to fall into the saccharine. It's easy watching, doesn't require too much concentration, tugs on the heartstrings, and even delivers more than its fair share of laughs. Champions gets high scores across the board from us!
Champions releases in UK cinemas on 10th March. You can watch the trailer here: