Aerial view of the Central park in New York with golf fields and tall skyscrapers surrounding the park.

Champions

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“If I can’t say the R-word, what do I call them?” asks Marcus (Woody Harrelson), a disgraced minor-league basketball coach sentenced to 90 days of community service coaching the Friends, a team whose players have intellectual disabilities. “Their names,” the judge replies. 

Based on the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” Bobby Farrelly’s “Champions” follows the basic plot of every other inspirational sports movie about a hangdog coach in need of redemption. But it has the added cringiness of using its team of Disabled basketball players solely as a method towards this redemption while completely failing to see their humanity. 

At the film’s beginning, Harrelson’s Marcus is arrogant, combative, and every other cliche you’d expect for this kind of character. In 2023, it’s hard to see why we should want to spend two hours watching this guy, even with the signature charm Harrelson brings to every role he plays. His one-night-stand-turned-love-interest Alex (Kaitlin Olson) doesn’t fare much better with characterization, uttering abysmal lines like “I’m a woman over 40. I have needs.” But thankfully, Olson finds a few more layers within her performance than the character is granted on the page. 

“I’m sorry, I’m new to this,” Marcus says to Alex after making a major gaffe asking how her brother Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) got his intellectual disability. To which she has to explain he was born with Down Syndrome, you don’t catch it. That’s the main presumption of the film: that everyone watching it is new to knowing anything about intellectual disabilities, and therefore it’s continually explaining their existence rather than allowing them to exist. 

In an earlier scene, the rec center manager Julio (Cheech Marin) tells Marcus about the personal lives of the team. As his speech plays out over voiceover, we see little vignettes of their jobs and homes. However, the filmmakers never actually bother to spend any time with these characters as they live their lives. Instead, they show the audience their lives from an almost anthropological distance. The filmmakers see them solely as teaching tools for Marcus and the audience, not complex human beings worth spending real time with.

Yet, the script gives the burgeoning relationship between Marcus and Alex plenty of screentime. We watch it blossom from straight sex to dinner in restaurants to Marcus watching Alex perform Shakespeare at her job to Marcus eventually coming over to her and Johnny’s home for their mother’s cheesy meatloaf Monday. 

This lack of respect for the humanity of these characters also comes at the expense of the dynamic cast playing the Friends—Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Casey Metcalfe, and Bradley Edens—whose star power, charisma, and comic timing is wasted in pithy one-liners and dated jokes. 

While each character is given an arc, they are mostly in relation to their goal of making it to the Special Olympics North American Regional Championship. By the time the credits roll, it’s not surprising that none of the actors in the Friends are listed along with the non-disabled stars of the film before the title treatment, given the film’s lack of respect for them throughout. 

Once the team does qualify for the championship in Winnipeg, they, of course, are behind leading up to halftime, with Marcus giving the requisite inspirational locker room speech. The result is perhaps the most cringe-worthy part of the entire film, as Marcus lets them know they’re already champions because of all the “stuff they put up with from ignorant people every day,” further othering this scrappy crew into tokens, despite the film’s good intentions. 

At the beginning of “Champions,” when Marcus is fired from his assistant coaching position, lead coach Phil (Ernie Hudson) tells him he needs to know the players on a personal level, not just as ballplayers. The same can be said for the filmmakers, who need to offer the same grace to the Friends and see their whole humanity. 

“Champions” will be available only in theaters on March 10th. 

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