“Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP,” Mirin Fader’s biography of Giannis Antetokounmpo, portrays the Greek-born basketball superstar as a young man of sweet-natured innocence and irrepressible enthusiasm. Immigrating to the United States to play pro ball for the Milwaukee Bucks, where he was the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, he sees everything through eyes of guileless wonder: He’s dazzled by chocolate custard and hot dogs, by peanut butter bars and mixed-berry smoothies,
Even American lingo fascinated him. “The day he learned the expression ‘Yo mama,'” Fader writes, “he ran around the locker room screaming, ‘Yo mama! Yo mama! Yo mama!’”
This childlike charm, as much as his generational talent, is what has endeared Giannis to legions of NBA fans, including many who don’t support the Bucks. “Rise,” the director Akin Omotoso’s biopic about Antetokounmpo, understands this well. This story of an ambitious, talented underdog clawing his way from obscurity to stardom hits most of the expected beats of a scrappy sports drama — the energetic training montages, the heart-wrenching setbacks, the motivational speeches designed to induce a few rousing tears.
But Omotoso keeps Giannis’s plucky vigor front and center, and directs the film with a warm, earnest wholesomeness that perfectly suits the disposition of its charismatic subject. It’s not simply a movie about how Giannis became one of the most dominant players in the league. It’s about why Giannis is so lovable.
Much of this effect is achieved by the fine work of the ensemble cast. Uche Agada, as Giannis, strikes just the right balance between powerful athleticism (demonstrated in some well-choreographed on-court action) and breezy elan (demonstrated, above all else, in the actor’s winning smile) that are the real Giannis’s defining characteristics.
The movie makes clear the importance to Giannis of family — much of the drama revolves around how Giannis’s ascent imperils his undocumented Nigerian family’s illegal residency in Greece — and Day Okeniyi, as the Antetokounmpo patriarch Charles, is especially lovely in a role that exudes parental tenderness . The film’s fidelity to the letter of biographical truth occasionally puts it in the territory of sports-drama cliché. But sometimes life really does unfold the way it does in pictures.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. Watch on Disney+.