When Spain’s selection committee for the Oscars infamously snubbed Asghar Farhadi’s star-studded “Everybody Knows” for a little-known film without US distribution, it was widely assumed their chances for a nomination were squandered. But in a category traditionally dominated by solemn dramas/documentaries, their surprise pick will surely stand out. Coincidentally reflecting its current status among awards prognosticators, Javier Fesser’sChampions” is an underdog sports story that brings rare feel-good vibes to the Foreign Language Oscar race.

“Champions” is told from the perspective of Marco Montes (Javier Gutiérrez), an assistant coach for a Spanish basketball team named CB Estudiantes. Ambitious to a fault, his arrogance gets him trouble during one fateful game when he starts a fight with his head coach. Having publicly disgraced himself, he resorts to his drinking habit, which results in him driving into the back of a police car in a drunken state. This incident sends him to face the courts, where a judge decides to put his skills to good use. Sentenced to community service, he must now whip an amateur basketball team to shape. But this may prove to be his greatest challenge yet, as the team is made up of players with varying mental disabilities.

As expected, these players are not naturally gifted at the sport. Representing a broad spectrum of intellectual challenges, Montes is initially apprehensive about their ability to successfully work together and compete. As he becomes more acquainted with them, however, they are soon setting their sights on winning a special National Series tournament.

Anyone familiar with underdog sports movies will easily anticipate what happens next, as the plot follows a predictable trajectory aimed to inspire audiences. The storyline also adopts the cliché of pure-hearted supporting characters being used primarily as catalysts for a flawed man’s personal growth. The film, therefore, lacks in genuine surprises, but it compensates by doubling down on enjoyable comedy and likable characters.

Indeed, Fesser maintains a light-hearted touch throughout the filmmaking, with bright cinematography and lively pacing adding to the exuberant atmosphere. And to the script’s credit, the team’s athletic ambitions are treated with utmost sincerity. Despite the players’ disabilities, there is no patronizing sense that they are competing for merely a participation trophy.

Instead, “Champions” isn’t too different from your typical sports film, fueled by the familiar thrills and conflicts relating to narratives surrounding unprecedented sporting success. And like the best films of this subgenre, it gives you a slew of characters to fall in love with. Whether it’s the foul-mouthed Collantes or the affectionate Manuel, the film presents them as fully realized individuals defined by their personalities rather than their disabilities. And the humorous script gives them a few delightful running gags to make them even more memorable.

Ultimately, “Champions” delivers a heartwarming message about the importance of trust and sympathy in the context of teams and other special relationships. It’s therefore disappointing that the film often fails to trust its own audience. Specifically, “Champions” is almost ruined by an overbearing score which tries to dictate how viewers should feel during every emotional beat. Thankfully, the film is too entertaining to resist. Having already conquered the box office in Spain, “Champions” is destined to win more hearts when it inevitably secures US distribution.

“Champions” is the Spanish submission for the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

GRADE: (★★★)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “CHAMPIONS” ranks among the contenders!