Rise could easily be a standard sports underdog movie, where, with training and sheer willpower, athletes overcome all odds and win a championship or something similar. It could also stumble upon oversimplification, like many biopics do, by trying to fit the individual origin stories of three NBA stars — Giannis, Thanasis, and Kostas Antetokounmpo — into a 2-hour runtime. Thankfully, Disney’s latest biopic of the first trio of brothers to win NBA championship rings breaks the mold and scores a three-pointer with amazing performances, a unique perspective on the immigrant experience, and a beautiful portrayal of family.
Released on Disney+ on June 24th and directed by Akin Omotoso, Rise chronicles the early life of the Greek-Nigerian Antetokounmpo brothers as they discover their passion for basketball and experience the early stages of their meteoric rise to fame. What makes Rise special, however, is that, instead of focusing on exclusively telling the story of the athletes, the film shines the spotlight on the entire Antetokounmpo family. The story begins with the parents, Charles and Vera, leaving their home in Nigeria with just a few belongings to find better economic opportunities. The film follows them as they deal with the perilous journey to Athens and the difficult process of building their new home and raising emerging basketball stars as undocumented immigrants.
Rise is anchored by wonderful performances from real-life sibling duo Ral and Uche Agada as Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. They portray a realistic sibling relationship full of witty banter and genuine support on and off the court as the duo begins their path to Basketball stardom. Unlike other films in this genre, which reduce family as a supporting ensemble or contrived obstacle, Rise showcases the richness and complexity of the Antetokounmpo family in all its ups and downs.
Audiences spend plenty of time outside of the court with the family through joyful moments as they share meals, spend time together in a mall, or have fun while selling sunglasses to tourists. But, we also witness them overcoming difficult times, like how they uplift each other when faced with racism and look out for each other’s safety as they try to avoid the authorities. This attention to authentic family dynamics is the heart of Rise and what makes each of the central characters compelling and grounded.
The film also excels in highlighting the multiple facets of the immigrant experience. It doesn’t shy away from the very real hardships of being undocumented, but it does so in a way that never reduces the characters to the sum of their suffering. Financial and legal difficulties, as well as the psychological toll of immigration, are threaded throughout the plot, so we can see how these issues affect each member of the Antetokounmpo family.
Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki’s performance gives Charles and Vera Antetokounmpo deep and vivid emotion and heart-breaking dialogue as they reflect on the harrowing decisions made on the journey to Greece, video chat with family members, and try to navigate an exhausting immigration system. In fact, very few moments in recent films have struck me as profoundly as seeing Charles and Vera sit in the middle of a library as an unhelpful immigration advisor dismisses their jobs as unskilled and coldly explains to them the slim chances of obtaining residence.
While the reality of immigration constantly looms over the characters, Rise is not all heartbreak. Because of the time the film spends developing the family, the movie avoids defining them by their struggles. It instead highlights their grit and perseverance.
And yes, there’s plenty of phenomenal basketball to watch, too. Casual sports fans don’t need to be familiar with the ins and outs of the game to understand the weight of the Antetokounmpos’ skill on the court, but the film makes a point of highlighting it. The film boasts a hearty array of montages and scenes showcasing the Antetokounmpos’ prowess through tense games and training sessions that are only amplified with Nigerian composer Ré Olunuga’s dynamic score, which combines traditional orchestral soundtracks with Nigerian music. For those unfamiliar with sports movies, however, these sequences might be a bit too repetitive and slow the pace of the film, but that’s just a minor flaw in an otherwise memorable slam dunk of a biopic.