|Love & Basketball|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 10 October 2000|
Back in the 1930s, some wiseacre declared that the basic movie story was "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl," and of course, that really is the boiled-down plot of a lot of movies, including "Love & Basketball." In fact, the sheer familiarity of this undeveloped boy-meets-girl idea is comforting; it's the stuff of all romantic melodramas and comedies. We don't want to see boy NOT get girl, after all. It's the details that flesh out the idea that make the movies matter to us.
"Love & Basketball" has a freshness and warmth that made it matter to critics and audiences, and it's been given the "Platinum Series" treatment by New Line Home Video, which may be gilding the lilly more than a little. It's a good movie, but it's not likely that any but its most fervent fans will want to listen to both commentary tracks, check out the animated storyboard of one of the basketball sequences, watch the audition footage of stars Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman (playing the same two characters at different ages), and so on. The commentary track featuring Lathan and director Gina Prince-Bythewood is even somewhat irritating; the two women chat and laugh a lot, but their discussion adds little to the enjoyment of the movie. The other track, with Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire and (recorded separately) composer Terence Blanchard is considerably more interesting.
Rather too much like a basketball game, the movie is divided into quarters. First Quarter, the screen tells us, is Spring, 1981. Young Quincy McCall (Chatman) is playing basketball in his driveway with a few friends, when a newcomer their age wanders in, wanting to play, too. Turns out the stranger is a girl, Monica Wright (Pratt), whose family has just moved into the same upper-middle-class black neighborhood in Los Angeles -- right next door, in fact. They're both crazy about basketball; in fact, Quincy's father Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) is a pro player. On the other hand, Monica's mother Camille (Alfre Woodard) couldn't care less about the sport; she's happy being a housewife and fond mother. Monica and Quincy, often called just Q, decide to be boyfriend and girlfriend, though this doesn't last long.
However, by the Second Quarter, 1988, when they're both seniors at Crenshaw High, they're still good friends, even if not romantically involved. And they're both still playing basketball.
One of the strengths of Gina Prince-Bythewood's script is that Monica's love of the game is never made to seem even slightly unusual, nor is any bogus explanation created to explain it -- any more than for Quincy. Also, the writer-director makes it clear, again without undue emphasis, that girls' and women's basketball is a genuine sport with fine athletes -- even if, unfairly, few in this country pay much attention to it.
(Which leads to an interesting plot development in the fourth quarter.)
Quincy is a major star on the Crenshaw team, and he has his choice of colleges trying to recruit him. On the other hand, Monica's temper and arrogance have caused her to be passed on by all college recruiters. Neither her mother nor her father (Harry J. Lennix) are particularly supportive of her goal of playing ball professionally. Meanwhile, Quincy's parents are drifting apart; matching an earlier scene in which young Quincy could hear them making love at night, there's an excellent scene when he, as a teenager, hears them fighting, and goes across the lawn to Monica's room. She lets him in, hands him a pillow and blanket, and he sacks out on her floor -- something that's obviously happened all too often in the past.
They each go to the senior prom with someone else, but the dates don't work out well, and the two end up making love -- tellingly, for Monica it is the first time, but Quincy is experienced.
Finally, however, USC recruits Monica -- as well as Quincy. For a while in the Third Quarter (1988-1989), they go together, but pressures are pulling them apart. Monica has to work harder than Quincy does to make her mark on the basketball team, so much so that she rigidly observes curfew one night when Quincy desperately wants to talk to her about his parents' collapsing marriage. Soon thereafter, he breaks up with Monica, and drops out of college to turn pro.
The Fourth Quarter, 1993, brings them back together, just as we want. There's a last, charming coda at the very end.
Lathan and Epps were both in their twenties when they played teenagers in "Love & Basketball," but she's far more convincing than he is. She expresses that focussed, self-centered intensity common to many smart teenagers, with complete assurance and naturalness; she's believably naive, believably promising. She gives an exceptionally good performance, so good that it's surprising she hasn't turned up in bigger roles already. Epps was reasonably well established by the time of "Love & Basketball," though his performance is more conventional than Lathan's. We never get under his skin the way we do with her (partly because the movie is really her story), though he's not bad. It's just that he lacks her intensity, and does not draw our attention the way she does.
Dennis Haysbert is one of the warmest and yet most incisive actors working today, which makes us, as well as his son, believe his lies about never having had an affair. Haysbert is a major star waiting to happen. Alfre Woodard, of course, is a star; her role here is just on the border of thankless, though, and she's not able to bring many dimensions to the underwritten part, though she tries.
The basketball scenes are very good, with the focus being (reasonably enough) on Monica's times on the court. The editing is excellent, and Prince-Blythewood never lets our attention wander. The sound is particularly good in one sequence; we hear Monica's thoughts, and sometimes see the action through her eyes -- at this point, the sound of the basketball comes from the right-hand speakers, as if we're dribbling the ball ourselves.
As pleasant and entertaining as it is, "Love & Basketball" just misses the jump shot. Though the characters are appealing, and Lathan is outstanding, the story itself is slight and predictable. There needed to be more incidents overall -- but also, at more than two hours, it should have been shorter.
As suggested above, most of the extras are negligible, but the documentary, "Breaking the Glass Ceiling," is worthwhile, and the deleted scenes are often interesting.