Akin Omotoso’s Rise checks all of the boxes of the formulaic sports biopic, where one (or two) people who come from nothing are given one shot, and their life changes drastically. We’ve seen it all before, which becomes hard to set them apart from one another. It’s even more challenging to put the film on a pedestal when Jeremiah Zagar’s Hustle came out on Netflix not too long ago and painted an earnest portrayal of basketball through a fictitious redemption story with real-life NBA stars. Zagar’s film is a love letter to basketball, and especially those who love the sport will think it’s one of the greatest sports films ever made. How can you top that? Rise doesn’t, but its willingness to tell the harrowing story of the Antetokounmpo family should be commended.
We’ve all seen the story before, but what sets Rise apart from other basketball films is how Omotoso strives for an emotional connection between the protagonists, Thanasis (Ral Agada) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Uche Agada). Eventually, brothers Kostas (Jaden Osimuwa) and Alex (Elijah Shomanke) Antetokounmpo become basketball players, but the story isn’t about them. Instead, we’re here to see how Giannis rose (no pun intended) from zero to basketball legend while doing everything he can to support his mother (Yetided Badaki) and father (Dayo Okeniyi) as they entered Greece illegally and are at risk of deportation if the police catches them. Giannis secures a place in the 2013 NBA Draft with his talent, but his place in a team isn’t guaranteed. He’ll have to prove himself to the best of the best to fight for his family and secure a place on a team, and the rest is history.
Omotoso stops the film once the Milwaukee Bucks pick Giannis. There’s nothing more to tell because we know what happens next. Thanasis joined the Knicks, and Kostas followed shortly after with the Lakers. The three of them have already solidified themselves as some of the greatest basketball players who have ever graced a court, which the film reminds us at the end through a highlight reel of the brothers’ respective careers. But the movie isn’t engaged in telling that and will spend time telling an emotionally charged underdog story with two solid performances at its core.
The Agada brothers have great chemistry together as both Thanasis and Giannis. Of course, part of it is natural—they’re real-life brothers, after all. But they can also excitingly sell their basketball exploits. The basketball sequences are the only times the movie dazzles with visual creativity. Kabelo Thathe’s camera does all sorts of movements to keep the viewers engaged, including the always stunning backward tilt, as recently seen in the first episode of Ms. Marvel. But the rest of its cinematography feels too televisual for my taste, especially during moments where a (very obvious) green screen is used. These scenes are also moments when the Agada brothers’ acting isn’t at their strongest.
Uche seems to have the most trouble displaying genuine emotion, particularly when he has to choose between two offers. He almost seems too calm for the scene. Two scouts are going after Giannis with offers too good to pass up. He has to make the right choice, and a sequence like this needs more emotional weight than the calm, almost careless response he brings to the scene. But when he’s paired with Ral during basketball scenes, their chemistry fire off all cylinders, and it is riveting to watch.
Okeniyi and Badaki give much-needed depth to Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo and solidify the close-knitted familial relationship they have with one another. However, the film’s constant focus on Thanasis and Giannis is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it allows us to understand where they came from and how hard they fought to get into the NBA draft. On the other hand, however, we spend very little time with Kostas and Alex. Both of them are small kids, sure, but they’re barely in the movie, and I would’ve loved to see how they also discovered their love for basketball or how they were inspired by their brothers to play. Unfortunately, the film never touches upon that and prefers to give the entire spotlight to Giannis and Thanasis instead. Fine, but it would’ve felt like a complete portrait of the family if Omotoso had explored that aspect further.
But Rise is an interesting film nonetheless. Is it paint-by-numbers? Sure. But does it contain a strong enough emotional heart to make us care about our protagonists and the journey they undergo to ensure that they can have a successful career and that their family is cared for and safe? Absolutely. Ré Olunuga’s rousing score does most of the film’s heavy lifting regarding emotion and elevates the performances to a breaking point during the film’s ending. Even if you did not know who Giannis Antetokounmpo was or are not a basketball fan, it’s hard not to cry when Giannis’ family’s entire life is in the hands of an NBA draft pick.
It’s even more effective when you know precisely what will occur since Giannis does get picked by the Bucks and becomes the most prominent legend of the NBA right now. I’ll say it; he’s the greatest player currently in the NBA right now. And to see such an inspiring story being put to film, which only showcases his dedication as a great basketball player and human being, is enough for me to seal the deal. There will never be another one like Giannis Antetokounmpo, just like there wasn’t another Michael Jordan.
Rise is now available to stream on Disney+.