“If you don’t do anything stupid, we might win.”
Those are mechanic Rex Marshall’s parting words to dirt track racer Sean Weathers before a big race at Rome Motor Speedway in Georgia. Though Sean won the Southern Regional Dirt Track Championship the season before, he’s behind in points so far this season. The leader? A young upstart named Ray Reed, who’s come from nowhere to lead the pack.
Sean, who’s under pressure from team owner Owen Roberts to reclaim the lead, is none too happy about the rookie’s ascendance. “They talk him up like he’s the next big thing,” Sean says to Rex’s wife, Sam, the chief mechanic on his car. “He needs to be taken down a notch. That’s what I intend to do.”
No wonder Rex is nervous. Sean’s more than just hungry to win. He’s angry. And he’s desperate.
It proves to be a tragic combination.
On the last lap of the race, Ray Reed is about to sneak by Sean to swipe the coveted victory from him. But then the unthinkable happens: Somehow, Sean’s car T-bones Ray’s, sending his young competitor’s vehicle flipping viciously down the dirt track.
The accident claims Ray’s life.
And in the aftermath, Sean Weathers has to pick up the shattered pieces of his. It’s a painful journey that leads unexpectedly to a collision of another sort with Ray’s father, Jack, who’s also struggling to come to grips with the loss of a long-estranged son he was only just beginning to reconnect with.
Champion begins on the dirt track. But after Ray Reed’s death and funeral, the narrative shifts to its true subject: the messy intersection of fatherhood and failure. Both Sean and Jack are fathers. Both have failed. And both have important lessons to learn about faith and forgiveness (which I’ll unpack further in Spiritual Content and in the Conclusion).
Sean Weathers is a champ on the dirt track. And he’s doing his best to be one on the home front as well. His 9-year-old daughter, Gracie, is as precocious as she is adorable, and Sean loves her with all his heart. He strives to take good care of her in the wake of her mother abandoning the family.
But Sean’s passion for racing and his passionate approach to it often unintentionally eclipse his affection for Gracie. And in the wake of Ray’s death, Sean’s deep regret spirals into listlessness, then depression and, finally, dependence upon painkillers. He still loves Gracie deeply, but he’s lost the will to care about much of anything. That neglect eventually contributes to Gracie being placed with a Christian foster family until Sean can get his act together. But Gracie’s removal also proves to be a catalyst for him to get to a better place, one that will earn him custody of his beloved daughter again.
Jack Reed, meanwhile, owns a thriving investment company. But he, too, has struggled as a father. After his wife’s death, Jack and Ray became estranged, a separation that’s lasted for nine years. Ray’s newfound faith, we learn, was the catalyst for reaching out to his dad to reconcile, a relational mending that had only just begun when Ray was killed. It’s an event that leaves Jack grieving and full of regret himself, pondering what might have been had he and Ray had more time to rekindle their broken relationship.
Jack is eventually encouraged by one of Ray’s mechanics, Logan Evans, to consider reaching out to struggling, unemployed Sean as a means of trying to begin moving forward six months after Ray’s death. Jack needs help restoring and renovating an old family cabin, and Logan suggests that Sean might be someone who could help him.
Jack initially has no interest in offering that olive branch to Sean, but he eventually decides to do so. Sean is equally hesitant to accept the offer, but comes around. As Jack and Sean work together on the cabin, it affords an opportunity—slowly, at times awkwardly—for each man to hear the other’s troubled story. Both are broken and need of redemption. Both have much to learn about humility, dependence on God and learning to forgive.
Elsewhere in the film, the family that temporarily adopts little Gracie, the Suttons, loves and cares for her well. As they do so, the film demonstrates the positive, redemptive impact a foster family can make in the lives of a young person in need.
Forgiveness is the chief spiritual theme woven throughout Champion. Jack struggles to forgive Sean for the accident that claimed Ray’s life. Sean struggles to forgive his own now-deceased father, an abusive alcoholic who left Sean with a gaping wound of anger and insecurity in his heart. And Sean struggles to accept forgiveness himself for the accident that he caused that day at the speedway. As the story unfolds fully, there are still more layers of this important theme to be revealed before the credits roll.
Logan Evans, as well as his wife Annabelle, play a significant role in exhorting Jack to offer forgiveness to Sean, no matter how hard that seems. They share a story of forgiving someone who hurt them deeply, and describe how their willingness to extend grace became a life-changing influence in that person’s life as well as their own.
Jack responds, “I could never do that,” which prompts Annabelle to say, “We’re sinners separated from a holy God. And there’s nothing we can do by ourselves to fix that. And yet, He provided a way for us. Through His Son on the cross.”
Logan adds, “That’s right. Not because we deserve it. Not because we’re good, but because He loves us. It’s tough. But when you understand what you’ve been forgiven of, you can’t help but follow His example.”
More than once we hear variations on the phrase, “Forgiveness doesn’t erase our past, but it helps us rewrite our future.” The film concludes with Ephesians 4:32 on the screen: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.”
As Jack begins to fully offer Sean forgiveness himself, it frees him to speak into the weakness and deep insecurities in Sean’s heart. “Sean, you worked so hard at becoming a champion, believing you’re only as good as your last performance. Just think about what it might be like to let go of that control. Let someone else carry your burdens. I found out that’s all it takes. Surrender. Giving it up to God. God loves you. He will forgive you no matter how many times you fail. All you have to do is ask.”
At Ray’s funeral service, the officiating minister talks of the hope of seeing our loved ones again in heaven. And Logan gives a moving tribute to Ray’s faith at a separate church service. A poster there reads, “In loving memory of Ray Reed, 73,” followed by 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
During that service, Gracie offers a tender prayer of her own for her struggling dad. Later, we learn that Gracie and her foster family have been praying for dad every day (and we see them praying and reading the Bible together). We see Jack reading his Bible and praying as well.
No sexual content, though Jack and Sean do remove shirts to swim in a lake.
The racing accident that claims Ray Reed’s life shows his car flipping quickly a number of times before it comes to halt. The accident also leaves a large bruise on Sean’s forehead and his right arm in a sling.
Sean tells Jack about how his drunken father used to beat him. We hear about (but don’t see) someone shooting another person in an assault.
No profanity. Jack jokingly calls Sean a “wuss.”
Though Sean doesn’t appear to use alcohol to excess, a couple of times we see him drinking a beer. Another scene pictures an empty beer bottle on a coffee table in his apartment. As mentioned above, Sean references his father’s drinking problem. Sean also talks about how his father once pressed a beer bottle cap into his hand as a “medal” for winning a track race at school.
Sean’s bigger problem is the fact that he gets inadvertently addicted to painkillers because of an injury to his shoulder in the racing accident. Long after that injury is presumably healed, Sean’s still furtively taking pills, dumping them directly from the bottle into his mouth at several stressful points during the film. Sean’s forced to admit his problem to Jack when Sean fails a drug test trying to get a new job.
Before the accident, Sean is arrogant and unwilling to accept anyone’s instruction or advice, especially that of his longsuffering mechanics, Rex and Sam Marshall.
The promise of forgiveness is central to the gospel: Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we can be set free from crippling regret and self-condemnation. And we don’t have to let others’ mistakes and terrible choices be our undoing.
And yet, despite that powerful promise, forgiveness can be hard, too. Hard to accept ourselves. Hard to offer to others. In both cases, it’s difficult to relinquish our natural desire to want to punish, somehow, those who’ve done wrong—whether that’s ourselves or other people.
Champion does a compelling job of showing us why forgiveness is so important, even as it demonstrates just how uncomfortable it can be to give and receive it. Both Jack and Sean struggle with the implications of forgiveness in their respective journeys, neither of which are easy.
Forgiveness is also shown to be a key component in family relationships. Fathers, even the best of them, make mistakes. As do sons. The only way to experience redemption and reconciliation in those closest of relationships (and those between mothers and daughters, too, though this film doesn’t focus on them as much) comes through forgiveness.
All of us make mistakes. All of us need forgiveness, and all of us need to extend it to those who wrong us. Champion poignantly reminds us of that fundamental spiritual truth.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.