‘Champions’ Scores With Its Winning Cast of Charming Characters
A basketball coach is sentenced to community service, forced to work with a team of mentally disabled players.
Director: Javier Fesser
Cast: Javier Gutiérrez, Athenea Mata, Juan Margallo, Sergio Olmo, Alberto Nieto Ferrández, Gloria Ramos, Julio Fernández, Jesús Lago
Runtime: 124 minutes
Spanish film Champions (CAMPEONES) tells the heart-warming tale of how Marco (Javier Gutiérrez), a selfish, self-absorbed basketball coach, changes for the better after being forced to work with a rag-tag group of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
It’s difficult to approach this synopsis without a groan. It’s a straightforward plot with a sports-movie structure that can be telegraphed from a mile away – the protagonist will initially look down on this group and by the end he will realise that they have taught him more about life than he can ever teach them about basketball.
Champions does almost follow these beats to a tee but it was impossible not to be swept away by the heart director Javier Fesser pours into constructing his characters.
While casting the characters with intellectual disabilities, Fesser had to rewrite the entire screenplay based on the personalities, the experiences and the real lives of the people who would eventually make up the film’s basketball team. This made these actors – who themselves suffer from intellectual disabilities – come off as natural and as humanising as possible.
The camaraderie between these characters is a clear highlight of the film, brightening every scene they are in with unbounded optimism and energy. Their disposition inevitably clashes with the constantly sour mood of Marco, who is forced to coach the team as part of his community work sentence after being caught drink-driving.
Marco’s character arc may be predictable but that does not make the journey any less satisfying. This is mostly due to Gutiérrez’s upstanding performance as Marco, presenting him not only as a prick but a vulnerable prick. It helps that Marco is funny too, with Gutiérrez nailing every comedic beat every time his character hopelessly tries to weasel out of uncomfortable situations.
While I appreciated the clear effort in fleshing out of its characters, it’s difficult not to see some elements as emotional cheap shots. Beyond the growing friendship with his team, Marco struggles with his disintegrating marriage – his wife, Sonia (Athenea Mata), wants kids and he does not. The disappointing resolution to this side plot, however, dilutes what was until that point a very natural character progression for its lead, especially given Gutiérrez’s emotional range on full display.
Another negative in Champions was its demanding soundtrack. The same sharp brass instruments punctuate every time the quirks of intellectual disabilities stand out against the confusion of those unfamiliar. This may keep the film playful and lighthearted but the lack of variation gets somewhat grating especially after its fifth appearance. I also felt that it downgrades the all-too-relatable discrimination that these individuals face to a comedic gag, denting the film’s message of acceptance by presenting this issue in a far too unrealistic light.
Nevertheless, Champions is Spain’s entry to the 2018 Oscars and the highest-grossing Spanish language film of that year in Spain for a reason: it’s a familiar, uplifting flick that proudly challenges what it means to be a champion. The film is filled with wholesome fun all held up by its delightful cast. Take away the profanity-filled dialogue and Champions is the perfect family film to educate children about intellectual disabilities.
Don’t miss Champions screening on 17 January as part of the MINDS Film Festival.
In the meantime, check out the trailer for the Spanish film:
About MINDS Film Festival
Since its inception, the annual MINDS Film Festival has become a unique platform to showcase the meaningful narratives and uplifting possibilities that persons with intellectual disabilities experience. Organised by MINDS and Singapore Film Society, MINDS Film Festival 2020 is a five-day festival that will invite the audience to step into the shoes of the intellectually disabled, fostering a greater sense of understanding within the community.
Kevin Chew, Director of Social Enterprises and Employment Development at MINDS and part of the MINDS Film Festival’s organising team, joined us on the red sofa to discuss how MINDS looks to use award-winning films to raise awareness and understanding of persons with intellectual disability amongst the wider community.
Also, check out what we thought of Distinction, a simple yet profound tale from Hong Kong that will be also be screened as part of the MINDS Film Festival.