Most basketball movies, from “He Got Game” to “Love and Basketball” to the recent “Hustle,” presume an abiding love of the sport more or less from the jump. Even attention to the business side of the court tends to grow from a deeper, almost spiritual connection to the game’s fast-paced beauty. So it’s a notable change of pace that the new Disney+ original movie “Rise” takes a more methodical, sometimes practically minded approach to the story; by the 30-minute mark its characters have barely played so much as a game of pickup.
The opening section, following Charles Antetokounmpo (Dayo Okeniyi) and his wife Veronica (Yetide Badaki) on an arduous and unsanctioned emigration from Nigeria to Greece, contains no hints that this movie is actually about an NBA dynasty in the making. Charles and Veronica only want a better life for their family, and have already left the first son in care of others to keep him safe as they enter Europe, hoping to send for him soon. Instead, they get stuck in a painfully familiar loop: To get proper immigration papers, they need to get legitimate, on-the-books employment; in order to gain employment, they need proper papers. This is made even more challenging by an anti-immigrant sentiment rolling through Greece in the 2000s.
In the meantime, their family grows; the movie picks back up with Charles and Veronica trying their best to support their four sons. The two oldest, Giannis (Uche Agada) and Thanasis (Ral Agada) enjoy soccer, like their dad, but when they stumble into a pick-up basketball game, they realize they have some natural talent—especially tall, graceful, strategically minded Giannis. The boys, raised with a spirit of intrafamily teamwork, realize this could be a windfall for their parents’ struggles. But that maddening immigration loop of needing papers to attain the status that they want in large part to solve their papers problem still lingers.
NBA fans will have an inkling of how this story ends; so, for that matter, will students of the kind of feel-good sports movies Disney used to release theatrically back when the Antetokounmpos siblings were young. The measure of “Rise” is not its unpredictability, but how well it can carry the audience along on its journey, even if they have a sense of how it might turn out.
Unfortunately, this particular inspirational sports saga often feels curiously flat, despite a pervading sense of empathy. The characters (and actors playing them) are never less than likable, but their story feels perfunctory and businesslike—maybe in part because it focuses so intensely on the struggles and strengths that everyone in the family shares, robbing them of individual characteristics. When Giannis and Thanasis exchange a “Coming to America” reference on their first trip to New York, it’s jarring, because they haven’t talked about anything but family or basketball for most of the running time.
Director Akin Omotoso occasionally holds on a lovely image, like the opening-credits shot of Charles and Veronica walking down a road in Greece, silhouetted by a giant, looming sun, or a later overhead shot of Giannis practicing that reduces the court to a geometric sense of calm. These flourishes make it all the more frustrating that so many other scenes feel assembled, rather than composed. (Random example: a moment where Charles gives his information to a possible employer is shot from three or four vantage points—not for jittery flash, but just to cut around for no discernible reason.) Appropriate to the neither-here-nor-there quality of so many streaming movies, “Rise” sometimes resembles a theatrical film and an unremarkable TV movie, spliced together—though eventually, the TV movie dominates.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with an undemanding sports story, appropriate for family audiences. Young kids who live and breathe basketball will probably like this one. But in “Rise,” as with a lot of basketball movies (including “Hustle”), the suspense is derived from behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings more than gameplay. For this to work, there needs to be a great sense of detail or urgency; Omotoso and screenwriter Arash Amel barrel into a bunch of NBA draft meet-and-greets that are more packets of information than real, fully developed scenes. The movie’s points about immigration are made early; much of the rest amounts to good things eventually happening to talented and hard-working people.
That might be a story, but it’s not much of a drama. As is often the case, the end-credits follow-up about the real people has more genuine emotion than the movie it postscripts.
“Rise” is now streaming on Disney+