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“There’ll always be inequality,” says one of the people with disabilities who are the real stars of the hilarious and heartwarming Champions, referring to the arrogant basketball coach given the task of turning them into a team. “But we’re teaching him to handle it.”
That kind of pleasingly punchy reverse logic is typical of Javier Fesser’s fifth feature, which aims both to entertain and to tackle prejudice head on. The emotionally uplifting result, which has “labor of love” written all over it, has been Spain’s biggest box office hit to date of 2018: International presales have been healthy, with remake potential for any production team prepared to take up the challenge of replicating Champions’ freshness and fizz.
Fesser’s reputation as a distinctive “outsider” director is built on zany comedies, but his finest work to date is the intense Camino, about the dangers of religion. The zany-but-thoughtful Champions brings the two sides of Fesser together, celebrating otherness at the same time as criticizing traditional attitudes to it. Marco (Javier Gutierrez) is an assistant basketball coach for a Spanish major league side who has attitude problems that have led to a separation from both his wife Sonia (Athenea Mata) and from his coaching job as well. (At the start of the film, Marco is frankly Neanderthal in his attitudes, in a way that even remotely enlightened auds might have trouble identifying with.)
After driving drunk into the back of a police car, Javier is ordered to do community service, in the form of coaching Los Amigos, a team of guys with disabilities who generally operate under the eye of kindly old-timer Julio (Juan Margallo). They are, as Marco later complains, “a group of 20 year-olds who behave as though they’re six.”
All of this is mixed in with the on/off relationship of Marco and Sonia, through which it’s revealed that Marco is more of a team player when it comes to basketball than when it comes to his own marriage.
Champions follows the standard dramatic trajectories, as Marco learns to be a good person and figures out how the word “normal” is relative. It is indeed standard, family-friendly fare, but carried off superbly, with all the energy, brio and visual cleverness for which Fesser is known. The story of how Marco takes over a team of mentally and physically uncoordinated no-hopers, many of whom seem ill-adapted to team play at all, features more comic scenes than tender ones, but its best moments are both at the same time. Early sequences are set up credibly enough, but later on, plausibility is abandoned — not that it matters, since from about half-way in audiences are being carried along on a feel-good wave.
Champions lays on its message in a heavy-handed, populist way, but neither its storyline nor its approach to the characters is ever tear-jerking or simplistic. Fesser and co-scripter David Marques have bent over backwards to present Los Amigos as regular guys — and one girl, who’s perhaps the most memorable character of all: The pint-sized Collantes (Gloria Ramos), who has Down Syndrome and is prone to gaining an advantage by kicking her lanky opponents in the genitals.
This is very much Gutierrez’s movie, and he delivers, retaining sympathy even when Marco is behaving repugnantly. (Of late, an appearance by Gutierrez has been a guarantor of a film’s quality, as evidenced by titles such as The Motive and Marshland.) The secondaries are all fine, but special mention must go to the ten members of the wonderfully anarchic Amigos, all non-pros and each handled individually, with due care and respect, by a script that is far more patronizing to Marco than it is to them. One of the film’s most moving exchanges is a seaside conversation between Marco and traumatized Roman (Roberto Chinchilla), while the triumph of Juanma (Jose de Luna) over his aquaphobia is a different kind of highlight, an over-the-top, surreal set-piece which should provoke tears and laughter in equal measure.
The final scene of Los Amigos’ big, climactic game is a joy to be manipulated by, all heavy orchestra and slow motion, and including a delicious final twist guaranteed to enlarge aud perceptions about what being a champion actually means, which is of course the whole point. Much of the film’s sentimentality seems to have been front-loaded into Rafael Arnau’s score, which is lovely but extended to the max, its eternally rising tones calculated to oblige the viewer to reach for the Kleenex.
For the record, Champions may also be an act of cultural penance for the Spaniards, who are turning out in droves to watch it. At the 2000 Paralympics Games, the Spanish national basketball team won the gold medal with a team including only two players with disabilities — a remarkably cynical and fraudulent act that Champions takes pains to condemn outright.
Production companies: Peliculas Pendleton, Movistar +, Morena Films
Cast: Javier Gutierrez, Jose de Luna, Gloria Ramos, Roberto Chinchilla, Athenea Mata, Luisa Gavasa, Mariano Llorente, Daniel Freire, Juan Margallo
Director: Javier Fesser
Screenwriters: David Marques, Javier Fesser
Producers: Luis Manso, Alvaro Longoria
Director of photography: Chechu Graf
Art Director: Javier Fernandez
Costume designer: Ana Martínez
Editor: Javier Fesser
Composer: Rafael Arnau
Sales: Latido Films
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