The genre of “feel-good amateur sports” is one that usually pleases many and makes you leave the theater in a good mood. It’s a genre that doesn’t have the intensity or athletic stakes of something like Miracle (2004), but it has heart (think 1992’s The Mighty Ducks). And Champions, starring Woody Harrelson, sure does hit on a lot of the tropes of the wholesome movie about a grumpy coach changing his heart because of his kids. That doesn’t make it unenjoyable, but it can definitely be a selective watch.
Champions tells the story of Marcus (Harrelson), a shamed assistant basketball coach who has an attitude problem, boasts a bit of an ego issue, and can’t keep a job because of how insufferable he is to work with. Because of an arrest after the loss of his latest coaching job, he’s forced to do community service by coaching a community basketball team made up of players with intellectual disabilities. As you’d suspect, he is annoyed at first, and unfortunately uses the R-word in the courtroom when he gets his assignment. It’s obviously done in a way that shows he’s in the wrong (he clocks that right away, as well), but it’s hard to get over the fact that it was still used in a comedic moment. Regardless, the one other time it’s used is also in a way that’s shamed and dealt with.
Interestingly (and refreshingly), though, Harrelson plays Marcus as pretty accepting from the get-go once he meets his team (at least to their faces). You’d expect someone like Marcus to be mean or have a short patience with these young adults, but Harrelson’s amusement and genuine liking for these actors seems to make that impossible. While at first Marcus is nowhere near as caring to these kids as he is by the end—in true sports film fashion, he obviously has to get attached and change his outlook on life in his arc—he starts off with some frustrations at their first practice, but it’s a sweet meeting.
Based on the 2018 Spanish film, Campeones, this movie has a romantic side plot with Marcus and Alex (Kaitlin Olson), who is Marcus’s hookup at the beginning and very predictably ends up being the sister of one of Marcus’s players. It’s a very take-it-or-leave-it romance that doesn’t add too much except another emotional layer to Marcus. Ernie Hudson plays Coach Phil Perretti who, despite having to work with Marcus, is actually a really understanding guy. The movie does a great job of introducing each member of the team and never making them just background players. Each has their own story, and it’s easy to connect. Basically, it’s not inspiration porn at the expense of these characters; they’re treated as full humans who just happen to have disabilities. Overall, Champions is endearing at times with some slow moments, but it’s a good movie if you’re a fan of the genre. PG-13, 123 min.