Following a disgraced basketball coach who is forced to train mentally disabled players, Javier Fesser’s Champions is a moving film that is unafraid of tackling a challenging subject matter. It is no masterpiece, but it is regretful that it will inevitably only reach a small audience outside of Spain, where it has rightfully won numerous awards.
The way in which the film deals with prejudice and discrimination deserves a huge amount of credit. Technically a comedy, there is the fear of being greeted with a ghastly and uncomfortable spectacle of mockery and ill-judged humour. The opposite is true. Indeed, in the words of one of the disabled athletes, Champions manages to “treat us like people” in a way that is eye-opening and important.
Few scenes are without the presence of Javier Gutiérez, who suits up and plays the role of coach and protagonist. A mastery of comedic timing and expression ensure his delivery is consistently amusing and at times genuinely hilarious. Most importantly, he serves as an effective mouthpiece for one of the most important messages of the film: that our prejudices and ignorance must and can be challenged, undermined and abandoned.
The protagonist’s development from an individual who flippantly uses derogatory slurs when describing disabled people to someone who passionately fights for their interests and sees them as his equals is a powerful device that illuminates the flawed logic and cruel nature of ableism. Like Marco the originally uncaring coach, you soon find yourself deeply invested in the athletes and the trials and tribulations they face both on and off the pitch. Crucially, these characters are fascinating and well developed. Their defining traits are not their disabilities but their distinct personalities.
Yet the film does have some issues. It is worryingly predictable. The basic formula of “flawed protagonist finds redemption by training team who are in some way disadvantaged or face hardship” has been done to death. At this point, if you have seen enough of them, such as James Gartner’s Coach Carter (2006), you have seen them all. Thankfully, the way that Champions expertly deals with complex and momentous issues in a way that is engaging and touching helps mostly negate the fact that it is littered with clichés.
Marcos’ troubled relationship with his wife, Sonia (played by Athenea Mata) is an aspect of the story that is simultaneously important in certain moments and yet seems irrelevant and uninteresting in others. It is not primarily due to Mata’s performance, although admittedly she is far from superb and at times seems somewhat stiff and difficult to sympathise with. It is more that the audience are not provided with any real backstory or character development. The issue is not that you do not know from the outset why her relationship with Marcos is difficult- it is that you simply do not care.
That said, Fesser manages to repair this in later sequences as he addresses the issues surrounding the possibility of having disabled children. Here, the relationship between Marcos and Sonia serves greater value and once again, the sensitive topics are handled with an appropriate amount of care. It is in instances such as this where the film is at it’s heart wrenching best.
Champions is not perfect. Some performances could be executed better, some aspects of the plot more impactful. But it is no coincidence that audience members were reduced to tears in some moments and broke out into spontaneous laughter at others. It achieves its intentions and more in daring, touching and hilarious fashion.
Image: User:STB-1 via Wikipedia