Woody Harrelson’s new sports/comedy “Champions” doesn’t include many plot decisions or thematics you can’t see coming a mile away. But, undeniably, it has a charm to it, one gained from its cast of special needs actors more than from Harrelson’s down-on-his-luck coach motif, or even the sarcastic edginess Kaitlin Olson (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) brings to the table as a concerned sister of one of the kids. The kids are the true focus; and though “Champions” mimics every sports movie cliche, it warmed my heart. It’s not “cringey” as some critics have suggested, but sweet.
The thematics are similar, and the opening of this film is basically “The Mighty Ducks” with a re-write (though the script is written by Mark Rizzo, based off the Spanish film “Campeones,” written by Javier Fesser and David Marqués). Bobby Farrelly of The Farrelly Brothers directs, yet it lacks the crassitude of “There’s Something About Mary” (though there are some puerile jokes) or the sports highs of “Fever Pitch.” But this is not a romantic comedy. Harrelson plays Marcus, a disgraced assistant J-league basketball coach who is fired from his job for being a hothead, and then sentenced to community service coaching a team of special needs kids called ‘The Friends’ by a tough-but-lenient judge (Alexandra Castillo). When he stammers what to call the team, starting the ‘R’ word but never finishing, the judge sternly suggests “calling them by their names.”
This is supposed to be a feel-good movie, and it is. I felt the opening sequences with ‘The Friends’ was played for laughs a bit, and tries too hard, but the film quickly recovers. Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Ashton Gunning, Madison Tevlin, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, and Casey Metcalfe play the team, and are truly the highlight of the film. They are authentic and real. They are loved by the rec center manager, Julio, played warmly by Cheech Marin (who was in the hysterical “Tin Cup,” which this film borrows elements of), who teaches Marcus that these kids lead very full lives. And while some rudimentary explaining takes place (to Marcus, and possibly the audience), “Champions” never comes across as ‘exploitative’ or ‘othering’ as many critics have flippantly suggested.
“Champions” takes a coach who cares about winning at all costs and shows him that ‘winning,’ to The Friends, is more about camaraderie and finding someone to stick with them than anything else (Julio explains the last coach ‘quit’ halfway through the season). The film is also an anthem about accepting people as they are. This is seen brilliantly in the film’s final game, the last play mimicking the aforementioned “Tin Cup,” “Rocky,” and other sports films that defy the ‘rag-tag team becomes champions’ motif. Some of Marcus’ growth comes from talks with Julio, others from interactions with Johnny’s (Iannucci) sister Kaitlin, with whom he has started a ‘friends with benefits’ entanglement, and others from watching and talking to the kids themselves.
The film also deals with some heavy topics, such as drunk driving, intolerance, and preconceived notions, but handles them in an adult manner. Marcus has several hard conversations with both Kaitlin and some of The Friends, and my favorite part of Harrelson’s acting here is the believable pause and deep breaths he takes before knocking on people’s doors for hard heart-to hearts. One of the film’s best scenes is between Harrelson and Joshua Felder’s Darius, and as Marcus answers one hard question after another you feel the way, intimately, that one’s bad behavior can impact someone else. Harrelson has equally touching scenes with the rest of the group, becoming more attached to Iannucci’s Johnny — along with Kaitlin — as the film progresses.
I suppose some criticisms exist. For one, Kaitlin’s character development waxes and wanes from strong to weak, though Olson plays her with heart. She and Marcus’ relationship builds to a crescendo then kind of fizzles — left unresolved — when a feel good film like this needed transparency and clarity. The ending is kind of vague and anticlimactic, lacking the punch of films like “Kindergarten Cop” with a closing scene audiences of heart-warmers often expect. But “Champions” has its heart in the right place. By the time Harrelson delivers a speech to the team at half-time at the Special Olympics about intolerance, overcoming adversity, and what it means to be champions, we believe him. Despite the film’s predictability, Marcus has changed, and Harrelson makes us believe the transition.
My biggest criticism of the ‘criticism’ lodged at this film lies in the ‘never enough’ approach carelessly offered. A feel-good film about special needs kids is ‘exploitative’ if it doesn’t dig deep enough into their lives — although this one digs in just enough for its premise — and ‘othering’ by taking time to explain some basic things to the audience. Does the audience need this? I don’t know. I smiled warmly when a group of 20-somethings in the rows ahead of me at the theater vocally winced at Harrelson’s use of the ‘R’ word early on. It shows that society has truly changed since I was young. But for those who think this kind of intolerance has fully passed, you need only peruse social media comments on any public figure with an intellectual disability to see the venom that still exists. Can we really fault “Champions” for trying to garner some empathy?
Maybe I’m wrong. Likely, the target audience of this film will be Harrelson fans or those in the market for a feel-good film. “Champions” is funny, endearing, and inclusive. Its characters have funny moments, but they also have real problems which are handled in an authentic way and not glossed over. The film is warmly accepted by audiences and not so much by critics. Who’s right? That’s up to the eye of the beholder. But maybe, just maybe, we should accept a film like this for what it is — a feel-good comedy — and not tell every film centered on special needs folks what kind of film it ought to be.
“Champions” is currently playing in theaters.