The opening scene of harrowing drama Heart of Champions brings us back to the simpler time of 1999. It puts the audience in the shoes of an Ivy League rowing team as they compete to a crushing defeat. Director Michael Mailer completely immerses the audience in his vision, and keeps the camera hooked on the action as the two teams clash. Just from this introductory segment, the intense high-stakes of this sport, as well as Alex (Alexander Ludwig, from Vikings and The Hunger Games) facing pressure from Olympic coaches to perform up to standards, are both established with the proper hefty weight that reverberates throughout the rest of the runtime. By seeing the team at their worst, the film opens the doors in a similar fashion to 1999’s Remember the Titans for a big change to the status quo. Cue the dramatically inspirational music, as this change comes in the form of Michael Shannon as Coach Jack Murray.
A 4-month time jump introduces our lead character, Chris (Riverdale’s Charles Melton). A new student who has just joined the university, Chris, is roommates with John (Alex MacNicoll, 13 Reasons Why), another member of the rowing team. While Alex is uptight and committed to pleasing his aggressive and overbearing father, John is a laid back recovering alcoholic entangled with his beautiful girlfriend Sara (Lilly Krug). John and Chris hit things off well, but there is almost instantaneous tension between Chris and Alex. Controlling and borderline psychotic, Alex is nevertheless rippling with muscle and determined to make his team the greatest. It is no surprise then that Coach Murphy wants to shake up the roster considerably. Neither Murphy nor Alex at first receive warm welcomes—Murphy asks everyone to write down why they want to be here. Murphy’s primary goal is to strengthen their core, and to build them up as a team. However, a team is only as strong as their weakest link, and conflict between Alex, John, and Chris threatens to completely derail all of the team’s goodwill.
As soon as I started Heart of Champions, I was reminded of 2021’s other competitive rowing film, the much darker The Novice. Both movies examine the effects of rowing on the psyche, and the fashion in which the competitive drive can twist one’s intentions. It mainly manifests in the form of Alex—he starts getting jealous and feels like he has been sidelined as Chris’s talent shines ever brighter. The blossoming love story between Chris and Nisha (Ash Santos) becomes fully realized in the most spectacular way. Streaking almost-nude in the snow leads to a passionate make out session. It is a picture perfect love setup that fuels the trajectory of Chris’s character.
Heart of Champions by no means reinvents the wheel. The same cliches you can find in nearly any other sports film are here too. What sets this apart a bit is the addition of the coming-of-age angle, mainly in the form of Chris and the way he adjusts to this new world. Charles Melton is very good as the lead, and made me fall in love with his character. Dialogue and insight for the intensity of rowing also lathers on a layer of specificity. “Rowing packs more pain in six minutes than most other sports do in a year” is a line engineered only for the purpose of telling the audience how demanding the sport can be. A shocking late-in-the-game tragedy injects the narrative with surprising emotional narrative consequences.
I think overall the movie is a successful feel-mostly-good sports drama beaming with the intimacy of personal touches. Executive producers the Winklevoss twins (Harvard alum rowers) should be proud to have this movie carry on the legacy of their names. Whether one just comes for the eye candy or something more substantial, Heart of Champions places heart, courage, and determination center stage as the rowing team approaches the championships.
Heart of Champions rows majestically to select theaters on Friday, October 29th.