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'Rise' tells an inspiring story without the typical sports movie pandering

Rise © 2021 20th Century Studios.jpeg
Photo by Patrick Redmond
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© 2021 20th Century Studios
Yetide Badaki as Vera, Ral Agada as Thanasis, Elijah Sholanke as Alexandros, Uche Agada as Giannis, Dayo Okeniyi as Charles, and Jaden Osimuwa as Kostas in RISE.

You can be forgiven if you’ve skimmed past the new Disney+ movie Rise. That generic title is enough—it could refer to pretty much anything, and even knowing this is a sports movie, it still tells you basically nothing other than it’ll probably be, you know, “inspiring.” And even if you’re familiar with the life story of NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is what this movie is about, you might understandably assume this is just another uplifting underdog story, one like a million others. Which is fine as far as all that goes, but not likely something you’re going to rush to watch.

And in a way, that is what it is. Giannis’ story is remarkable, and truly inspiring—his parents emigrated without documentation from Nigeria to Greece, and Giannis grew up selling sunglasses on the street and having to share sneakers with his brother so they could both play basketball. And the movie does just about every single thing you’d expect, even down to the game montages and the swelling orchestral score.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming that’s all this is. Because what I was happy to discover is that Rise maintains enough of a low-key tone that even the clichés don’t feel clichéd. It treats us like intelligent people instead of pandering to us, because even though it uses the tools of sports movies, its modesty fits Giannis’ roots and keeps the film grounded. The movie even elides some of its biggest opportunities to be dramatically splashy—we barely see one of Giannis’ most decisive athletic moments, focusing instead on the anxiety his father is feeling as it all happens.

Giannis’ triumph is not his alone, and Rise recognizes the importance of the roles played by others along his journey. The man famously had the Milwaukee Bucks bring his entire family to the U.S. after the team drafted him, and he’s well known for expressing his family’s importance in his life. Rise knows it can tell this story without reinventing the wheel, by treating its subject, and its audience, with respect.

Rise is on Disney+.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.