FILM REVIEW — Special Olympics sports movie with lots of heart

Published 12:02 am Friday, March 10, 2023

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Focus Features

Directed by Robert Farrelly

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Starring Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Cheech Marin, Matt Cook, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci and Casey Metcalfe.

Rated PG-13

2 1/2 Stars

A sports film with a lot of heart and an unusual twist, “Champions” is an unexpected charmer that should put a smile on the faces of most audiences. And if you have somebody with special needs in your life, this film will work even better.

Woody Harrelson stars as a basketball coach who has a breakdown in the middle of a game, which drives him to get drunk one night. He’s arrested for drunk driving, but the judge agrees to give him probation if he will coach a special needs team at a local YMCA.

The disgraced coach reluctantly shows up to see if he can whip this ragtag band of athletes into shape. The Special Olympics are coming up, after all. This being a feel-good sports film, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the team will eventually be heading off to the big game.

This is a genre film, so much of the story succeeds by staying true to what the audience expects. The coach starts off as a grumpy old guy who can’t wait to leave town and head off to the NBA, but thanks to the bond he forges with his team, he learns some things in life are more important than professional success.

It’s an entirely predictable story, which is a good and a bad thing.

What’s not predictable are the sly twists that get thrown into the mix to liven things up. The basketball team is made up of physically challenged athletes who are a quirky group of lovable characters.

Yet they are also adults, so they use profanity and bring up sexual encounters on a regular basis. I admit it seems somewhat incongruous to the film’s otherwise wholesome feel. I suspect the filmmaker wanted to point out that these characters may have physical challenges, but they still have the same desires that you and I have.

There’s more sex in the form of Kaitlyn Olson, playing one of the player’s clingy sisters. Sure, she and the coach are destined to fall in love, but the twist is she’s the one who’s only interested in a fling.

The coach ends up being the doe-eyed romantic. It’s not something we expect from Woody Harrelson.

I quite enjoyed these twists. Then again, if you’re somebody who likes the story to make logical sense, “Champions” might not be the movie for you. That romance is resolved in a character arc that isn’t very convincing.

We never get to see the process behind the character changes. That’s especially true for the team’s success. One moment they are unorganized and can’t make a single basket, the next thing you know, they are jetting off to the championship game. It’s not remotely believable.

Those issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed “Champions.” Yes, the story isn’t fleshed out and it’s very predictable, but the characters are endearing and the message of special needs athletes rising to glory is endearing.

This may be the least prestigious of the new movies opening this weekend, but it’s by far the one that stays with me the longest.

Movie reviews by Sean McBride, “The Movie Guy,” are published each week by Port Arthur Newsmedia and seen weekly on KFDM and Fox4. Sean welcomes your comments via email at