While Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson may be the stars expected to draw crowds to see Champions, the solo directorial debut of Bobby Farrelly, it is the film’s superb ensemble of supporting characters that make the film a winner. As a basketball team named The Friends, who go from a recreational league to the Special Olympics, the ensemble brings the perfect mix of levity, sincerity, and athletic competition to the screen. The rich tradition of movies about the game of basketball finds a worthy continuation in Champions, based on the 2018 film Campeones by David Marqués and Javier Fesser.
Harrelson plays Marcus, a talented basketball coach whose competitiveness and temper stand as his greatest adversaries. After getting fired from a G-League (the NBA’s minor league) team in Des Moines and then arrested for driving while drunk, a judge gives him the option for community service in lieu of jail time. Marcus jumps at the opportunity and agrees to coach The Friends, a group of players with intellectual disabilities who are as close as their team name suggests. While at first skeptical of the assignment, Marcus, unable to put his eagerness to win aside, begins to devote himself fully to the team. With the help of Julio (Cheech Marin), who manages the rec center, he gets to know his players and, in the process, realizes that his basketball dreams may not be what he once thought.
While The Friends are a joy to watch on screen, the moments between Harrelson and Olson, mostly, are not. Olson plays Alex, who spends her days performing Shakespeare out of a van for local schools. Champions begins with the two hooking up in Marcus’s bed, and features the cringiest, Rom-Com-esque dialogue one can imagine. Talk like, “I just swiped right,” for example, dominates the conversation. The two have remarkably little chemistry when together on screen. Hollywood norms dictate a romantic subplot, but more of this one should have wound up on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, the film is saved by The Friends.
Kevin Iannucci as Johnny emerges as one of the film’s standouts. He is also Alex’s brother. The two live at home with their mother, and Iannucci’s comedic chops are on full display as he roasts Marcus and develops his own style of play. We learn from Alex that Johnny often becomes dependent on her and the men she dates. But Marcus soon realizes that Alex may, in fact, be the one who is dependent. Such is one example of how the film finds a balance between heartfelt and comedic moments. Each informs the other. We see Johnny as a player on the court and in their romance. And the tender relationship between Johnny and Alex, one centered on mutual caring, features as one of the film’s best.
Champions presents a familiar dynamic: you never know what someone is dealing with off the court. Such is the case for Darius (Joshua Felder) and Benny (James Day Keith). Though perhaps the team’s best player, Darius refuses to play for Marcus. Unclear why, Marcus consults his former coaching colleague Phil (Ernie Hudson), who knows the family. What Marcus learns gives him the opportunity to grow and have a conversation with Darius that changes both their outlooks on life. Benny, who supports himself by washing dishes at a local restaurant, must also have a difficult conversation. His verbally abusive boss never gives him the day off to play in the games. After months of playing with the team under Marcus’s leadership, he finally stands up for himself.
Among the great joys of watching the film is getting to witness the ways in which Marcus and his players each grow from their time with The Friends. Marcus is not some kind of savior. Nor are The Friends saviors of Marcus. Genuine bonds form, providing the perfect mix of raw emotion and silly, light-hearted moments. One of the film’s comedic highlights is Madison Tevlin as Consentino, who delivers some of the best one-liners. Matthew Von Der Ahe as Craig and Casey Metcalfe as Marlon feature as two of the most consistently funny characters. And the rest of the friends, Showtime (Bradley Edens), Arthur (Alex Hintz), Cody (Ashton Gunning), and Blair (Tom Sinclair), each find their own moments to take over the screen.
On the whole, Champions is a masterclass in how to direct an ensemble. Farrelly and scriptwriter Mark Rizzo find ways to give intimate looks into the lives of the characters. Even the players who do not get much screen time make an impact. Harrelson is the conduit through which all of this comes together. His warmth, for example. His humor. And yes, his temper and edge are what drive the film and give each member of the cast a chance to command our attention. Movies, perhaps more than anything else, capture the romance of basketball, and Champions is no exception.
Champions debuts in theaters on March 10, 2023.