Review: ‘Rise’ scores with the dramatic origin story of NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo

Three men, one holding a basketball, standing in a rainstorm in the movie “Rise.”
Ral Agada, from left, Dayo Okeniyi and Uche Agada in the movie “Rise.”
(Patrick Redmond / 20th Century Studios)

When it comes to inspirational sports movies, the true-life tale “Rise” proves a slam dunk.

Dropping on the heels of Netflix’s Adam Sandler dramedy “Hustle,” another effective if noisier (and fictional) film about the making of an underdog NBA star, “Rise” covers a great deal of compelling physical and emotional territory in less than two hours. This involving picture should leave all but the most jaded viewers with a smile on their face and a lump in their throat.

Solidly directed by Nigerian-born Akin Omotoso (“Vaya”), based on a fine script by Arash Amel (“Grace of Monaco,” “A Private War”), the movie retells the remarkable story of how towering Giannis Antetokounmpo (Uche Agada) went from being a poor teen basketball hopeful living in Greece with his tightknit family to landing a coveted spot with the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2013 NBA Draft. Although he would go on to become an NBA superstar, the movie smartly ends with Giannis’ rousing — and enormously touching — moment of triumph as, against a host of odds, he’s selected by the Bucks, the team he’s played for ever since.

But the movie is about so much more. It absorbingly tracks how Giannis’ parents, Charles (Dayo Okeniyi) and Vera (Yetide Badaki), left Nigeria — and, for safety reasons, their first-born son, Francis — to emigrate to Greece, which they precariously entered by way of Istanbul. The devoted, hardworking couple settled outside Athens (where the film was mainly shot) and went on to have four more sons: Giannis, Thanasis (Ral Agada, Uche’s real-life brother), Kostas (Jaden Osimuwa) and Alexandros (Elijah Sholanke).


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Thwarted at every turn to obtain Greek citizenship, Charles and Vera continually struggled to provide for their family, though, as vividly recounted here, they stayed afloat through a combination of faith, perseverance and moxie. (Charles and Vera took a variety of low-paying jobs; the boys pitched in by becoming successful street vendors.) Charles’ mantra, “Friends come and go, but family is forever,” supplies the story’s thematic engine, and it plays out here in many stirring ways.

Enter basketball.

At first, Thanasis demonstrated more innate hoop ability than the younger Giannis as the brothers began to train and play in earnest with a local youth basketball club. (Money was so tight, the brothers had to share a pair of athletic shoes.) But Giannis persisted, honed his skills and eventually had to step in for his starrier brother when, during a key competitive game, Thanasis sustained an injury on the court. The rest is sports — and family — history: Thanasis also went on to sign with the Bucks, while Kostas would eventually join the Los Angeles Lakers. Alexandros currently plays for Raptors 905, Toronto’s affiliate in the NBA G League. (It’s all laid out here in a lively epilogue filled with well-chosen archival footage.)

Okeniyi and Badaki are terrific, providing loads of warmth, charisma and dignity to their anchoring roles. The Agada brothers make for a winning pair of screen siblings, steadfast in their characters’ commitment to each other and their chosen sport. Efthimis Chalkidis brings puckish charm to his role as Haris, the newbie agent who, in a long shot, sets the ball in motion for Giannis’ NBA entry.

“Rise” scores as first-rate family filmmaking and a worthy reminder that some dreams can and do come true — big time.


Rating: PG, for thematic elements and brief language

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Available June 24 on Disney+