Starring Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin, Matt Cook, Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, Bradley Edens

Written by Mark Rizzo
Based on the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones” written by David Marques and Javier Fesser and directed by Javier Fesser
Directed by Bobby Farrelly
Produced by Paul Brooks, Scott Niemeyer and Jeremy Plager
Cinematography by C. Kim Miles
Edited by Julie Garces
Music by Michael Franti

By Matt Neufeld
March 9, 2023

“Champions” is a rousing, positive, upbeat, optimistic, endearing, warm-hearted and heartwarming movie that not only succeeds at all levels but offers some quite important life lessons about understanding, tolerance, bravery, courage, love, people in general, understanding the variety of people that truly makes up humanity, and what it really means in this life to be a true champion.

This excellent, uplifting film also presents a set of positive, supportive and important messages about people with intellectual disabilities: Folks with intellectual disabilities are just like you and I, they are equals, they have their own needs and desires and feelings and emotions, they have interests and talents and hobbies and jobs, they fall in love, they have friends and family who love them and who they love, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and we need to shower them with the same levels of education, mentoring, guidance, encouragement, support, respect and love as anyone else on this planet.

That may seem like simple, common sense. But, alas, the reality is that there are a lot of stupid, backwards and intolerant people in this world who can’t seem to understand these basic truths, and who mistreat, who do not respect and who do not make any attempt to understand, relate to and get to know people with intellectual disabilities. And that’s sad. And that’s their loss. And that’s ignorant and stupid.

Sometime, cliches are justified in recommending a movie that not only resonates on a high level as a funny, fun, entertaining movie, but also connects as a film with an important set of themes, lessons and messages: This weekend, March 10-12, 2023, get up off of your butts, get a group of friends and family together, head on out to the movie theaters, and see–and thoroughly enjoy–this movie. “Champions” is a feel-good movie that will make you feel good. “Champions” is wholly worth your time, effort and money. And everyone—-everyone—-should see this movie. There–the movie can’t be recommended any more clearly and directly than that.

In “Champions,” Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, a gruff, edgy, somewhat-likeable, intelligent and insightful, youngish sixtysomething minor league basketball coach in Des Moines. Marcus, although he does mean well, has a bit of a temper and he can be a bit temperamental. After he makes a mistake on the court in the heat of a game, and then subsequently makes another mistake off the court, he finds himself ordered by a judge to perform community service: He is ordered to coach for ninety days a city recreation center community basketball team—comprised entirely of young men and young women with intellectual disabilities.

The subsequent scenes of humor, understanding, relationship-building, guidance, mentoring, support, education and respect between Marcus and this entirely loveable, enjoyable, talented and just completely endearing group of dedicated and intelligent basketball players is so heartening, so enjoyable and so uplifting, it’s all just completely, thoroughly enjoyable.

Yes, there is a journey of discovery and learning on one level for Marcus, and there is a slight journey of discovery and learning on one level for the players, who play under the name The Friends, which is applicable, because they are friends. However, much to the movie’s credit and much to the credit of the smart, rational, human, insightful and down-to-earth script by Mark Rizzo, none of this is cliched, sentimental, maudlin or treated with the expected cliches. What makes the movie, Rizzo’s script and the movie’s characterizations so special and notable in “Champions” is that Marcus, and others, talk, socialize with and interact with the Friends in a most normal, down-to-earth, but always-respectful, mature and adult manner–as equals. The way it should be. The result is just pure joy, as Marcus and the Friends develop a true bond of teamwork, athletic education, respect–and friendship. Yes, Marcus learns something about life. Yes, the Friends learn something about life, too. And, yes, moviegoers will learn something about life, too. And the results for everyone are purely satisfying on the highest, best levels.

Director Bobby Farrelly deserves much credit for adhering to the spirit of Rizzo’s script and messages and for maintaining that realistic, down-to-earth, non-sentimental tone, mood and atmosphere, also. Farrelly, Rizzo and Harrelson all treat their movie, characters, characterizations, story, plot and tone with, again, nothing less than continued high levels of intelligence, love and respect.

Of course, the incredibly gifted, creative and talented actors who play the Friends deserve a huge amount of credit for the success of this movie, too–they are just a joy, a wonder and a revelation as they portray a consistently entertaining, smart and human group of people. These actors just simply shine. Their enjoyable performances just happen to represent, too, one of the very best group of performances by and about a group of people with intellectual disabilities in film.

The actors playing the Friends display and perform a range of their feelings and their emotions so well–love, joy, disappointment, wonder, surprise, humor, resentment, anger, understanding, warmth, friendship, respect and all-out happiness–these loveable young actors quietly, assuredly and promptly steal this movie right out from under Woody and co-leads Kaitlin Olson, Cheech Marin, Ernie Hudson and Matt Cook. And that’s saying something, because Olson, Marin, Hudson and Cook all shine in this film, too. Everyone shines in “Champions,” really.

Here are the talented young actors who shine so brightly as the Friends basketball team: Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe and Bradley Edens. Congratulations, one and all.

You know what would be great? To have other film producers, directors and casting agents hire these actors for more films, television shows and stage plays in the future. You know what else would be great? To see more film, television and theater writers write more productions about and featuring people with intellectual disabilities–especially in the consistently respectable manner shown in “Champions.”

You know what else would be great? To see more people treat people with intellectual disabilities with the same levels of respect, dignity and love that are shown so well in “Champions.” And you know what else would be great? To see more politicians and government officials enact increases in funding, regulatory support and human rights laws in full support of and for people with intellectual disabilities.

And you know what else would be great? To see millions of people head out to real, actual movie theaters during the opening weekend of March 10-12, 2023, fill those theaters showing “Champions,” enjoy the movie, and then tell more people to head out during ensuing weeks to also see the movie. Because the world needs this movie, the world needs more positive and smart movies like “Champions,” and the world always needs to see, hear, feel, understand and remember the various themes, lessons, morals and messages of “Champions.”

If we all do all of this, perhaps we, too, can learn what it truly means to be champions.


Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.