Film Review – Rise
Rise (2022) inserts itself into the long history of Disney’s fascination with underdog sports stories. The formula is effective at pulling the heart strings of viewers of any age. Characters coming up from nowhere, defying the odds, and achieving the impossible is a tale that is easy to root for. Luckily, this latest entry does not disappoint, standing alongside the likes of Remember the Titans (2000), Miracle (2004), and Cool Runnings (1993). Like those mentioned, Rise succeeds despite its familiar beats. It understands that the athletics are only a secondary element and focuses in on the human factor. Believing in one another goes far beyond winning or losing a game.
Another interesting thread is that – unlike other movies based on a true story – the people depicted are still very much going through their journeys. Written by Arash Amel and directed by Akin Omotoso, the narrative introduces us to the Antetokounmpo family. Father Charles (Dayo Okeniyi) and Mother Veronika (Yetide Badaki) are Nigerians but had to immigrate with four of their five boys to Greece (sadly, circumstances would force them to leave one child behind). Incredibly, each of the four boys – Giannis, Thanasis, Kostas, and Alex – would grow up to be professional basketball players, with three of them winning the NBA championship. Giannis takes much of the spotlight, as the real-life person skyrocketed to be one of the best players in the world (it also helps that he acts as a producer).
But the achievement isn’t about basketball, but how this family overcame tremendous obstacles. The writing and direction details how they – as undocumented immigrants – lived constantly on the edge. Omotoso lays out how the Greek system, heavy in racism and class discrimination, worked as a weight holding them down. Charles and Veronika could not claim citizenship because they did not hold a payroll job, but employers required them to be citizens to be hired. To make ends meet, they – along with their kids – peddled items on the street for tourists. The threat of deportation was always on their minds. When Charles witnesses police tearing a person away from their family, the look of worry on his face tells us everything we need to know. When Thanasis and Giannis (played by real life brothers Ral and Uche Agada) express a desire to play basketball, Charles’ concerned reaction is understandable.
Although having to live without citizenship was a burden, that did not dissuade Charles and Veronika from providing as best a life for their kids as possible. In fact, much of the narrative has a bright and vibrant tone. The family is depicted as a strong single unit, where each member supports the other and everyone contributes. There are several scenes with the family laughing and enjoying each other’s time. The key line of dialogue, “When one person scores, the entire family scores,” is weaved into the very fabric of their beings. Although Giannis develops into the central figure point of the story, Charles and Veronika are the rocks holding everything together. Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki deliver tremendous performances as the married couple, balancing the frustration of the Greek system and the warmth they exude upon their children.
Kabelo Thathe’s cinematography captures Greece in all its luster and brightness. Even with the existing threat involving the family’s immigration status, they are surrounded by vivid colors and textures. There is a plethora of wide-angle establishing shots showing the blueness of the waters, the orange and yellows of the courts Thanasis and Giannis played on, and the tourist attractions sprinkled throughout Athens. The costuming mixes beautiful Nigerian and Greek stylings. Of course, we can’t get a movie set in Greece without a shot of the Parthenon. Seeing it juxtaposed with a young Giannis standing on a hilltop is so picturesque that it’s almost gratuitous. The environments highlight how far the Antetokounmpo boys came to be professional players. Where most NBA players are scouted in American colleges, they had to make a name for themselves from an entire world away.
When it comes to the basketball scenes, Uche and Ral showcase clear natural ability. Sometimes, when actors pretend to be good at a sport, that doesn’t translate well on screen. That is not the case with the Agada brothers. In fact, they do an excellent job of expressing the differences in Thanasis and Giannis’ early development. Where Thanasis was more naturally skilled, Giannis had to work to improve his game. Vuyani Sondlo’s editing details the grind Giannis had to put himself through – stumbling and tripping as he methodically started to get the hang of things. His dedication to get better trounced his lack of natural talent. The training montages are all par for the course. One scene taking place in the rain is pulled right out of the sports film textbook and makes for possibly the worst sports-related moment for its hamminess. But it all builds to satisfactory climax (I mean, what happens to Giannis and his brothers isn’t exactly a secret). When Giannis explains to an NBA scout what makes him different than other players, the writing and performance amplify how much he (and his family) had to sacrifice to get to that point.
Rise doesn’t add much surprise in terms of genre – the step-by-step beats will ring familiar to anyone with basic knowledge of sports films. And given that Giannis had a hand in its conception, I wouldn’t be surprised if darker material were glossed over or tempered down for general audiences. But the execution is so well done and the performances so earnest that I couldn’t help but be won over. This is a well-traveled story featuring unlikely characters. Seeing them overcome their struggles makes for an uplifting experience that’s hard to ignore. Is this yet another Disney-backed underdog sports film? Yes it is, and it’s a good one.
Final Grade: B+