A former minor-league basketball coach is ordered by the court to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. He soon realizes that despite his doubts, together, this team can go further than they ever imagined.
How do you solve a problem like “Champions?” Is it a well-intentioned film that shows those with intellectual disabilities can live full lives and are capable of much more than the average person gives them credit for? Or is it an exploitive work that takes advantage of its unique cast, setting them up so that we laugh at their expense? In a sense, I think it’s a little bit of both. This remake of the Spanish film “Campeones, tries to have its cake and eat too, as it sheds light on a misunderstood segment of our society, yet doesn’t mind poking fun at them along the way.
The premise is the very definition of simplicity. Beleaguered basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is pining away in the wilderness, acting as assistant coach to semi-pro basketball league in Des Moines, Iowa. Though once a rising star – having coached at Ohio State- his temper and lack of tact have gotten him fired from one job after another. The same happens when he makes a scene in the middle of a game and then makes the wise decision to get drunk, drive home and promptly rear end a police car. Not only does he lose his job, but he’s sentenced to complete 90 days community service.
He’s charged with coaching a team of intellectually disabled teens, an assignment he’s less than thrilled with. And yes, his team is a colorful bunch. Cody (Ashton Gunning) works in a dye factory and happens to be a wicked guitar player; Craig (Matthew Van Der Ahe) has a penchant for sharing far too details of his very active sex life ; Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) speaks four languages fluently; Constantino (Madison Tevlin), a very opinionated young woman, stands up for herself with a frightening amount of gusto; while Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) works at an animal shelter and also happens to have a conveniently much-older sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson), who Marcus can fall in love with.
To be sure, you can hear the creaking in the worn-out cliches that are employed. Yet, the film does take an interesting turn in the second act when we discover why Darius (Joshua Felder), a talented player who’s head-and-shoulders above his peers, has repeatedly refused to play for Marcus. His backstory comes out of left field and provides the movie with an emotional pull that compels us to see the movie through to its predictable, but nonetheless, effective conclusion.
Much of the humor revolves around the kids saying or acting in ways that run counter to societal norms, their innocence being the foundation of each joke. I truly don’t think it’s Farrelly’s intention to offend. I think he genuinely wants to undercut the notion that those suffering from this condition are capable of experiencing a life as full as those who are not similarly afflicted. The film is too character heavy to fully succeed in fully driving home this point but the glimpses we get of these young men at work or navigating through their day-to-day existence are effective.
Is this all in poor taste? Is the fact that the cast playing the teens are, in fact, intellectually disabled excuse any objections? Isn’t it a positive thing that these actors have been given this unique opportunity? I think it depends on each viewer’s perspective and frankly, being released during the highly sensitive era we live in, I have a feeling the film will be in equal turns celebrated and vilified. Is it any good? It’s fine. I found the humor to be gentle and enjoyed the interactions between the young cast and the veteran actors, while most of the jokes, predictable as they were, landed. Again, your mileage will vary, but I think keeping an open mind is the key where “Champions” is concerned.
2 1/2 Stars