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Champions: A Mixed Bag of Representation



This article contains plot spoilers for Champions

I was excited to go and see Bobby Farrelly’s newest film, Champions. My brother is a card carrying member of the ‘A-Team’ as he likes to call it (Autism and ADHD) and he is also one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and loving people I know. I approached the film with hope and apprehension, not trusting Hollywood to do an excellent job of telling the stories of ND and disabled people. But still. Hope dies last.

Farrelly is best known for the goofy yet iconic There’s Something About Mary and the Dumb and Dumber series. I hoped that Farrelly’s latest direction might offer something a bit more vulnerable and interesting than the slap-stick he is known for. In a way, it did, but the film was a mixed bag.

Champions missed so many great opportunities to do something interesting and new with depictions of both toxic masculinity and neurodivergent people. It is cool to see actors who are themselves neurodivergent playing neurodivergent characters, I loved watching them on screen.

Despite this, the character arc of Johnny, a young man with Downs syndrome played by Kevin Iannucci, stuck out as one that could have been so much more nuanced. Johnny is afraid of water. Cool, I thought, they are shining light on the sensory processing issues that a lot of ND people experience. A close friend of mine, also neurodivergent, hates the feeling of water. “It feels like my insides are on my outsides.” he explained to me, “Like I am being electrocuted. Wetly.” Finding things like water, or sound, or light massively over stimulating and awful is a pretty common experience for ND folks.

Disappointingly though, Johnny’s fear of water was instead parsed in a completely neurotypical Western psychological model where a previous trauma conditioned him to be afraid of water because he nearly drowned in a swimming pool once. The scene where Marokovich tricks him into showering by enlisting Johnny’s help to rescue a rat, and then squeezing shampoo all over him landed as really lame and incongruent rather than as funny or transformative. The film framed this deception as a win, and so feeds into the idea that there is something fundamentally not ok with ND people living according to what makes them more comfortable, and that the victory is in convincing, or in this case, tricking them, into doing what makes neurotypical people most comfortable.

Then there is the scene at the basketball court where a member of the public uses the R word about the disabled team, and the coach, Marcus Marokovich played by Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), tells him that it’s a ‘boo boo word’ and punches him in the stomach. This scene could have been a really cool opportunity to demonstrate original, healing conflict resolution and education between two men, but instead they resorted to macho violence and lauded Marokovich’s ABH as if it was the righteous and elevated response. This is especially dissonant given that Marokovich himself was dropping R bombs just a few scenes before.

The film does however do a great job at depicting a woman in her 40’s, which is rare enough as it is in Hollywood. That Alex, played by Kaitlin Olson, is also witty and unphased and sexually liberated is a big plus. I loved watching her. However, as is so often the case in Hollywood movies, I found it completely unbelievable that Alex would be interested in Marokovich’s character. We don’t see him do anything kind or generous or loving towards her. At all.

As far as I can tell, the plot line is that Marokovich gets marginally better at not being a bigoted hateful asshole to the disabled basketball team, and Alex is supposed to be so overcome with admiration for this transformation that she falls in love with him. Because he is passably nice to her brother who has Downs syndrome therefore is a Hero. I die. I found this so weak and yet another missed opportunity to depict an interesting and original narrative on the big screen.

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