Skip to main content
film review
Open this photo in gallery:
(L to R) Kevin Iannucci as Johnathan, Kaitlin Olson as Alex, James Day Keith as Benny, and Woody Harrelson as Marcus in director Bobby Farrelly's CHAMPIONS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Shauna Townley/Focus Features

Bobby Farrelly’s new comedy Champions is an adaptation of box office sensation Campeones.Shauna Townley/Focus Features

  • Champions
  • Directed by Bobby Farrelly
  • Written by Mark Rizzo
  • Starring Woody Harrelson, Kevin Iannucci and Kaitlin Olson
  • Classification PG; 123 minutes
  • Opens in theatres March 10

The problems with Bobby Farrelly’s new comedy, Champions, start on paper. The screenplay, by Mark Rizzo, adapting box office sensation Campeones, comes up short on gags and character. Instead, this film – about a basketball team of players with intellectual disabilities called the Friends – is mostly just satisfied following the standard underdog sports movie playbook while gawking at the cast, a charming group of actors who themselves have intellectual disabilities

Among them is Toronto’s Madison Tevlin. The performer, who has Down syndrome, became famous at 12 thanks to a viral 2015 video where she covered John Legend’s All of Me. Tevlin makes her big-screen debut here, bringing enthusiasm and some snappy attitude to a paternalistic and patronizing movie that’s mostly lacking both those elements.

The lethargy begins with Woody Harrelson. He’s one of the greatest actors of his generation but he often appears at a loss in this movie as he plays Marcus, a hotheaded minor league coach who loses his job for behaving like a Neanderthal on court. He’s also forced into community service after a drinking and driving incident, the gravity of which isn’t considered until much later in the film. The confluent events make him available to coach the Friends, a team – unofficially led by Kevin Iannucci’s affable Johnny – mostly content with just bouncing the ball off the walls. Although they wouldn’t mind a shot at the Special Olympics, which happens to take place in Winnipeg.

Open this photo in gallery:
(L to R) Alex Hintz as Arthur, Casey Metcalfe as Marlon, Matthew von der Ahe as Craig, Ashton Gunning as Cody, Tom Sinclair as Blair, Joshua Felder as Darius, James Day Keith as Benny, Madison Tevlin as Cosentino, Kevin Iannucci as Johnathan, and Bradley Edens as Showtime in director Bobby Farrelly's CHAMPIONS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Focus Features

The film follows a basketball team of players with intellectual disabilities called the Friends.Focus Features

You know where things are headed. The players are sloppy. The coach is disillusioned. The game brings characters who don’t play well with others together. I’m not spoiling much by telling you they make it to Winnipeg, where a side trip to the longitudinal centre of Canada is a fun touch of local flavour.

There’s something queasy about the relationship architecture here, as if it’s suggesting a commonality among these characters who have difficulties in social settings. The Friends have their disabilities. Marcus is a reckless jerk in need of lessons in empathy, which the movie delivers too easily.

Harrelson never seems to have his head in the game, and not because he’s playing a character just waiting for his shot to coach the NBA. He and Farrelly appear to be slumming it in much the same way that Marcus is, as if their basic efforts working with a cast with special needs is feel-good and charitable enough.

Open this photo in gallery:
Kaitlin Olson stars as Alex in director Bobby Farrelly's CHAMPIONS, released by Focus Features. Credit : Shauna Townley/Focus Features

Kaitlin Olson and Woody Harrelson's characters share a welcome, testy, screwball rom-com chemistry in the film.Shauna Townley/Focus Features

It’s not like this material would actually inspire Harrelson’s engagement in the first place, though. Marcus is often just reacting to whatever antics the Friends get up to, with the occasional opportunity for him to advocate on their behalf. Meanwhile, there aren’t any moments that demand real connection. He simply functions as whatever the equivalent of white saviour is in this scenario. Is “ableist saviour” a thing?

There’s a noticeable difference whenever Harrelson shares scenes with Kaitlin Olson. She plays Johnny’s older sister Alex, a woman stretched so thin that she has little time for relationships. But she manages brief flings with Marcus, where they share a welcome, testy, screwball rom-com chemistry.

Things finally get interesting when Champions reaches a self-reflective plot development. The Friends become a good news story in the press, on their way to Winnipeg, and Marcus benefits from the optics. The movie doesn’t dwell on it for too long, but for a brief moment, Farrelly and company seem to acknowledge who gains the most when telling stories like these.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe