There’s no such thing as an objective review (well, I guess there is; it’d just be reading off a movie’s credits and technical specs) and that’ll definitely be the case with the next 1,460 words on “Rise,” the new Antetokounmpo family biopic newly debuted on Disney+.
A movie about the single most important and impactful sports figure in my hometown’s history, the one who brought a championship parade down Milwaukee’s main drag – an image I thought I’d never see in my lifetime? Yeah, that’s a pretty automatic two stars for just showing up. The movie could stop midway through to have all the main characters say “Matt Mueller of Milwaukee, Wisconsin sucks” direct to camera and I’d still say, “Interesting artistic choice, compelling argument – thumbs up.”
So yes, I enjoyed “Rise.” Even putting aside my inherent affection for the story and person at its core, and recognizing the elements that clank, “Rise” is a success – short of an MVP-level cinematic experience, but a scrappily earnest, low-key and effectively endearing winner nevertheless. Call it the Bobby Portis of sports biopic movies.
“Rise” may be sold as the Giannis biopic, but it truly is the entire Antetokounmpo family’s story. In fact, the movie doesn’t hit the basketball court until about 30 minutes into its runtime, and the mostly wordless opening five minutes might have some wondering if they clicked on the wrong movie, following an intense raid on an immigrant haven in Istanbul. (Or at least as intense as Disney family film standards likely allow.) As anyone who knows the family’s hard-earned hope-filled true story, however, you’re in the right place.
There, the audience meets Vera and Charles Adetokunbo, Nigerian immigrants who flee that raid and make it into Greece, where their surname grows (thanks to a careless mistranslation) and their family grows with four sons plus one tearfully left behind as a baby in Nigeria. That’s by no means the end of their struggle, though; thanks to the restrictive Greek immigration laws, the entire family still lives in fearful secret – even the four siblings Thanasis, Giannis, Kostas and Alex, all born in a country that won’t recognize them.
To help support the family, along with selling sunglasses and trinkets in open-air markets, Thanasis and Giannis take up basketball at a local athletic center in the hopes of climbing the ranks and earning some cash. And after some early clumsy struggles, well, the rest is two-time MVP-winning, NBA champion, franchise-saving history. (Though if you’re expecting to see any dramatic recreations of Giannis’ tenure with the Bucks, you’ll have to wait for “RIISE.”)
No, director Akin Omotoso’s film exclusively tells the pre-NBA origins, leaving some worthy material on the bench but still smartly giving its minutes to hit the true story’s most uniquely inspiring and less universally known components.
The immigration aspect of the story is harrowingly and honestly told, effectively detailing the fears and frustrations with the system as the family runs from raids and battles the circuitous Greek immigration laws. In addition to having their meaningful last name – as a title card says, “Adetokunbo” means “the king has returned from across the seas” – condescendingly massacred by the system, Charles and Vera must deal with a visa system that offers residency documentation with proof of a payroll job … which can only be acquired with official residency documentation as well as callous landlords holding their fate over their heads and police stomping over their livelihoods in raids. When Charles is angry at his kids for playing basketball, it’s less about typical childhood misbehaving and more about putting themselves – and the fmily – at risk for attention in the open.
As “Rise” moves toward the court, the story stays fascinating and propulsive, watching the process as Giannis goes from simply learning the concept of dribbling to working his hardest to gain new skills and keep up with his older brother – all while sharing just one pair of tennis shoes between them, to their cruel teammates’ snickers.
They satisfyingly don’t laugh for long, though, as Giannis persistently learns to use his natural length to dominate on court and push the ball up court at blinding speed – an ability Milwaukee fans and Bucks’ opponents know all too well now. His game starts garnering scouts’ and agents’ attention – but also potentially the Greek government, making his next move essential. Go to the wrong team – or go undrafted, period – and their lives could all get uprooted. Quite the opposite happened.
It’s an inherently remarkable story without any Hollywood screenwriter’s help … which is good because they don’t get much from the screenplay here, the film’s Achilles heel. (Or, put in terms for Bucks fans, the film’s three-point shooting in the playoffs.)
While it hits the key points and notable details chronicled in the Antetokounmpos’ saga, the script from Arash Amel – the writer behind Nicole Kidman’s infamously disaster “Grace of Monaco” biopic and the better but forgotten Marie Colvin bio “A Private War” – is heavy on platitudes but light on personality. Everyone, from heroes to villains, lacks much depth or texture that could amp “Rise” up to its potential. (I mean, it’s a movie that doesn’t even let then-commissioner David Stern get booed at the 2013 NBA Draft, editing in applause that was very much not in attendance that night.) The dialogue features some nice inspirational lines but there’s rarely much to cling to in terms of character beyond the basic outline.
As a result, the drama can play simple and oddly flat. And as fans found out from practically his first day in the league, between his smoothie-loving social media posts to his playful dad jokes with the media, Giannis is anything but flat.
There’s little room in the perfunctory screenplay for much beyond the inspirational story and the details – but the performers take advantage of what room there is.
Making their screen debuts, real-time brothers Uche and Ral Agada are raw but hold the camera’s attention and bring a sweet, sincere sibling warmth to their roles. The standouts, though, are the parents. “American Gods” regular Yetide Badaki brings a strong-willed heart and magnetism playing their mother, while Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh from “The Hunger Games”) is a compelling prescence, a loving and supportive father though clearly struggling with balancing his fears and his lifetime of compacting disappointment (like a long-ago dream of pursuing sports himself) with hopes old and new. It helps that they have the fullest characters, making it no wonder some of the movie’s most engaging highlights – like the opening raid and border-crossing sequence – almost purely rests on these actors’ shoulders with almost no pesky dialogue needed.
A relatively unknown Nigerian director – his most famous film, the South African drama “Vaya,” earned some festival attention and Netflix play – Omotoso too brings some much-needed personality and even some shocks of beauty to “Rise.” The movie occasionally looks visually flat – this was clearly always going to be a Disney+ movie, not something with particular big-screen ambitions, with the budget to match – but Omotoso still provides Giannis’ story some character. Almost every scene features significant and unexpected pops of color, whether it’s the family’s vividly colorful African garb, the bright outdoor Greek basketball court, a mystical tree of lights or even a tense chase that comes with a smattering of eye-catching purple lighting. One scene even seems like a visual riff on “Do the Right Thing,” a hot-red wall setting the backdrop for a conversation on racism in Greece.
Add in Omotoso’s popping motif of showing the Antetokounmpos small – whether in birds’ eye shots moving through Greece or the title card with Vera and Charles walking in front of an impossibly monolithic sun – and you visually get a story of people small in the world, ignored at best, but colorfully marking their place in it despite their struggles. Plus, while the candy-coated look can add to the small-screen Disney aesthetic of “Rise,” the palate overall is a thoughtful and welcome splash of attention-grabbing character in a movie thirsting for it.
With the vibrant direction, earnest performances and inherently captivating story, “Rise” achieves the goal of any and all sports movies: getting the audience tense and amped for a conclusion they probably already know. And indeed, when “Rise” reaches the 2013 NBA Draft in the final act, Giannis as well as the entire Antetokounmpo family’s fate hanging in the balance, the movie emotionally hits its shot, earning a fist pump from viewers – even if they’re Suns or Sixers fans watching the star’s story play out. And for Bucks fans: How can one argue with a movie whose big dramatic conclusion features everyone on pins and needles eagerly waiting on Milwaukee’s say?
Indeed, “Rise” is perhaps the experience of the Milwaukee Bucks in movie form: clearly with its flaws but genuine, cheer-worthy and in the end winning despite its shortcomings. But really, anyone should get a lift from “Rise” – no Bucks or Brew City bias necessary.
“Rise”: **1/2 out of ****