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Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
Writer: Arash Amel
Director: Akin Omotoso
Streaming on Disney+
It’s a sad fact that an awful lot of movies these days share the somber theme: “Bad things happen to good people.” For that reason alone we need to celebrate Rise, a stubbornly uplifting true story of fortune falling upon the unfortunate; of optimism triumphing over crippling caution.
Rise is based on the extraordinary life of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-Nigerian star of the Milwaukee Bucks and, simply, one of the greatest basketball players who’s ever lived.
But don’t turn away because you’re not a hoops fan. Even if you don’t know a layup from a ledgie, with its charismatic cast, brisk pace, and stand-up-and-cheer finale, Rise takes its place among the likes of Rudy and Rocky as a sports film that proclaims, with unreasonably convincing assurance: With hard work, good intentions, and a mother lode of faith, anything is possible.
Because he is an NBA legend, Giannis emerges as the most consequential character in Rise, but the real heroes here are his parents Charles and Veronika (Nigerian-born stars Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki). We meet them on the run, one step ahead of Turkish immigration officials, dodging border guards and escaping to neighboring Greece — a country only marginally more welcoming to immigrants.
Scraping together an underground living doing odd jobs and selling trinkets to tourists, Charles and Veronika raise four boys in a one-bedroom apartment. The kids share a single, big bed; mom and dad sleep on a couch in the living room. Every few months the couple dress up and present themselves to Greek immigration officials with evidence of employment, always hoping to attain legal residency status; always having their hopes dashed by bureaucrats who, while not insensitive, are nevertheless seldom helpful.
For the Antetokounmpo family, life is a day-to-day routine of “just keeping:” just keeping enough food on the table, just keeping current enough with the rent to avoid eviction, just keeping their heads down low enough to avoid invoking the wrath of Greece’s growing anti-immigrant mobs.
Through it all, Charles and Veronika focus their vision forward. “It’s not where you start,” Charles likes to tell his kids, “it’s where you finish.” But he doesn’t utter those words with the grim defiance we get from so many inspiring movie dads — most recently from Will Smith’s gruff and borderline abusive Richard Williams in King Richard. Instead, Okeniyi’s Charles offers his confident benedictions with glowing cheer, as if he’s providing his kids with sneak previews of the Promised Land.
Raised playing soccer, the couple’s oldest boys, Giannis and Thanasis (played by real-life brothers Uche and Ral Agada) find themselves drawn to basketball, a game they spot some local kids playing. They join a city basketball club despite objections from their father, who fears two six-foot-plus black kids towering over their white teammates will attract unwanted attention. Dad is not wrong about the boys getting noticed — soon professional scouts are standing courtside.
Mostly, it’s Thanasis, the older brother, who draws interest with his ability to weave among defenders. Giannis is clearly talented, but his skills are mostly defensive, and he’s as likely to send the ball clanking off the rim as send it through the net.
But an on-court injury forces Thanasis to the sideline, and it’s Giannis who must fulfill the family’s basketball dreams at an NBA-sponsored workout in Greece.
A lesser film would have set up some sort of rivalry between the brothers as their individual fortunes rise and fall. But writer Amash Amel (A Private War) and Nigerian-born director Akin Omotoso (Vaya) are having none of that: As Charles impresses upon his boys during a soccer practice early on, “When one person scores, the whole team scores.” And as a side note to those who view Disney “family values” with harsh skepticism, do try to remember the last big-studio film that so frequently stopped the action to show the main characters praying together.
If the Antetokounmpo family at times seems unrealistically cheerful and ridiculously supportive, consider the fact that their real-life success story is both unrealistic and ridiculous: It’s no secret to hoops fans that, in time, both Giannis and Thanasis would become NBA stars, along with a younger brother, Kostas — and that the trio would become the first three siblings to all play on NBA championship teams (a fourth brother, Alex, has also played in the NBA).
To be sure, there are a couple of filters at work in Rise: For one thing, this is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s authorized version of his life story, and it’s well-known he absolutely adores his parents, especially his father, who died of a heart attack at age 54. For another, this is also a Disney movie, so the lows are suspiciously shallow and the highs are played to nearly operatic extreme.
Still, the skeleton of the Antetokounmpo saga is undeniably sturdy, and it’s gratifying to see Disney having turned the project over to a team that includes not only a Nigerian director, but also his longtime cinematographer, Kabelo Thathe. The score — alternating effectively between the majesty of a soaring Hollywood-style orchestra and the percussive urgency of Greek-and-African-infused music — is by Nigerian composer Ré Olunuga.
Movie snobs like to turn their noses up at Disney for flooding our theaters and TVs with easy sequels and no-brainer reboots. But credit where credit is due: If they make possible films like Rise — shamelessly hopeful, adamantly aimed at celebrating the virtues of family — then by all means bring on the Mandalorians and Avengers. They’re worth the price of admission.
Featured image: (L-R): Ral Agada as Thanasis and Uche Agada as Giannis in Disney’s live-action RISE, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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