Screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center Chicago European Union Film Festival (3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), Imdb.com (7/10)

Sports dramas – especially those where the athletes are competing under trying conditions – have become a staple in the movie industry over the past few decades. They all tend to follow a fairly standard formula in which underdog competitors aspire to greatness while wrestling with ancillary challenges that threaten to derail their efforts, divert their focus and force them into difficult choices. These pictures also feature common themes like inspiration, tenacity and the virtues of teamwork. And we all know the outcomes of these pictures going in, so their conclusions rarely, if ever, come as a surprise; the suspense is in watching how our heroes overcome their ordeals and reach their destinations. Such is the stuff of the latest offering in this genre, “Kalev,” the fact-based story of the Estonian national basketball team in its 1990-91 bid to win what would be the final USSR Basketball Championship before Estonia declared independence from a Soviet Union that would collapse not long thereafter. Writer-director Ove Musting successfully hits all the right (i.e., expected) notes and throws in a few delicious unanticipated twists in this feature film debut, an economically told and edited offering that moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace, punctuated with stirring re-created game sequences that make viewers feel like they’re right in the middle of the action. While the narrative and screenplay might have benefitted from a little more originality, that’s a minor concern in the overall scheme of things given how many aspects it gets right. Die-hard sports fans (particularly basketball lovers) will surely enjoy this one while learning a little more about the inner workings of Soviet politics and the fates of the courageous Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) that led the charge in breaking free from the oppressive rule they were forced to live under for decades. Here’s to the winners!