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Team Spirit: “Champions” reviewed

You’d need to have a heart frozen in carbonite not to find something to enjoy in this breezy, big-hearted sports yarn in which Woody Harrelson coaches a team of Down Syndrome adults to basketball glory. It wears its imperfections on its sleeve – the script is a touch underwritten, the team’s garbage-to-greatness arc is fumbled at the last and for some reason, it’s set in Des Moines, Iowa – but the sight of an ensemble of Disabled actors delivering gusto-filled performances in a mainstream Hollywood movie is so heartening, forgiving those flaws is easy.

And that’s not to patronise the cast in any way, because the film certainly doesn’t. Every character is well-sketched, from Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), the ‘homey with the extra chromy’ who keeps the mood upbeat through some early setbacks and a montage or two, to the team’s sole female player, the trash-talking Cosentino (Madison Tevlin).

Harrelson’s tempestuous coach arrives with a P45 from the local pro team, a community service order for drink driving and vast reserves of entitlement. Quickly, the eager bunch are sassing him and Johnny’s sister (a standout Kaitlin Olson) is mocking his NBA ambitions.

Champions’ debt to cranky-coach sports flicks like Hoosiers (which gets a namecheck), Bad News Bears and Slapshot gives it a throwback feel, but there’s definitely something modern in the idea of a hard-drinking dinosaur stumbling into a more inclusive-feeling world and embracing, rather than recoiling from it. Harrelson throws himself into the role wholeheartedly. It’s not going to win too many trophies, but Champions is still a cheering watch.