The sharp reality is here: basketball’s reached its off-season. Activity’s completely off the court until October, replaced by business offices and training rooms. What is not lost in that moment of pause and reprieve is the goal of a dream achieved and an obstacle surpassed. Such is the norm for any Disney true-life sports drama, sustaining a trend that’s lasted over two decades now, covering football, hockey, and competitive chess etcetera. Now, appropriately timed to fill the void following the Warriors’ latest league title and the cutthroat nature of the NBA Draft, a dramatized account of the latter’s unlikeliest catch reaches the screen. Akin Omotoso’s Rise highlights the triumphant rise (and inadvertent missteps) of the famed Antetokoumpo family. Anchored by now-Bucks power forward Giannis, carried by their beliefs, and adherent to formula. At least, until the excitement factor kicks in.
Even then, it’s a slow build, with Omotoso (The Ghost and the House of Truth) and screenwriter Arash Amal (A Private War) crafting a sympathetic family portrait piece by piece. One not too surprising, unafraid to compel. It begins with new parents Charles (Dayo Okenini) and Veronica (Yetide Bataki) making the most of a below the radar situation in the early 90s. Fleeing their old home in Nigeria in favor of improved opportunities in Greece, the former footballer and high jumper look to build something better for their eventual family of five (their eldest left behind with grandparents), taking up odd jobs with the goal of achieving citizenship. While the parents hide an ongoing financial struggle, big and little bros Thanasis (Ral Agada) and Giannis (Uche Agada) rectify their teamwork, sticking to each other both on and off the court. When not selling street side souvenirs, they’re practicing their craft. First on outdoor playgrounds, then with a legit youth team in a local gym.
As time flashes by – within thirty minutes it’s suddenly 2007 – the ethics of a standard sports movie kick in, linking the connection between adversity and untapped potential. The duo, alongside youngest bro Kostas (Jaden Osimuwa) eventually discover that through the guiding hand of coaches like Takis (Panos Koronis) and brash agents like Haris (Efthemis Chalkidis) and Kevin (Manish Dayal) who give them a leg up. All despite the challenge of their legality, they are carried by a certain will to slice past that red tape, and play for glory, financial stability, and a shot at the Draft.
The trick with these true stories put to film always falls with generating a hero to root for, regardless of one’s knowledge going in. Both Giannis and Thanasis fit the bill, keeping level heads against a backdrop that’s far from inviting. Omotoso might not lean in too hard on the Greek migrant crisis, or the friction undocumented residents experienced during the 2000s. It’s merely a picture by which the future phenom capitalizes on, channeling his fear and outrage into a crafty display of basketball’s mental equation. Most stories to involve this sport might only focus on judgment of character. To make its expression of emotion all about the mind, what stress goes through a player’s mind, young or old, regardless of experience? It’s a refreshing take, reinforcing the captive fast-paced energy of a playoff match with the prize being simple freedom.
That tension works well for real life brothers Ral and Uche in their screen debuts, adapting to the sport like a bike to a trail. Uche, in particular, acts quickly to embody Giannis’ still-evolving legacy with utmost accuracy and concise athleticism. Gifted, though still humbled by every risky play. It’s a sneaky detraction from the norm of an athlete’s story; the wrong actor would fumble on sustaining that insight. The kind only a fresh faced performer, and genuine fan of the sport could recognize. Just before stepping their defenses down for yarns of fatherly wisdom. There were points throughout where Okenini deservedly took over the rains, his team captain mentality never fading when protecting his flock. Osimura and Bataki add in inklings of convivial charm, interjecting when the moment’s too heated.
If the film’s casting or exercise of ethics didn’t convince me how urgent Omotoso had been to sell its authenticity, best to keep the eyes open. A streaming production, shot on location, presumably under a tight budget, often looks unfathomable at first glance. Not in this case, with a director committed to the truth, embracing the olden beauty of Athens and beyond. DP Kabelo Thathe (New Material) strives to move with the same flighty footwork in the Ugadas’ shoes, toying with a dusty, sun drenched color palette. If only that exact focus could’ve translated as effectively when at its least obvious, varying by location. Certain interior scenes looked more akin in construction to a Tyler Perry sitcom versus a gritty human drama, to note. It’s all slightly inconsistent, though not disastrously so as to sour the mood.
There’s zero denial in redeeming how familiar this story, and its demeanor, could be. Either to those already aware of the Antetokoumpo family’s journey, or that preexisting fan base for Wheaties box caliber icons leaping to cinematic heights. Rise may not completely live up to its title, not without being corny or vivacious. It does respond to its invitation to aim high, run far, and score plenty of threes with a plot thriving firmly on cultural defiance. Omotoso might not be able to navigate past the “squeaky clean” path of the genre’s brethren, its ending not that stunning. And were it not for the Agada brothers cleaning up the court, I’d be hard pressed to search for where that dynamic skews off what’s been done before. Leave it to a capable ensemble who know the material, recognize the routine, and then enforce a real heartbeat to approach the final buzzer. That much got me absorbed in its affirming trance, hiccups notwithstanding. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Rise streams on Disney+ beginning June 24; rated PG for thematic elements and brief language; 111 minutes.