by Joe Barber
Romantic, sweet-natured and often wise in the nature of the games we all play on and off the court, Love & Basketball proves an engaging, entertaining theatrical debut for writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood. A talented cast, led by Omar Epps and, in a performance certain to make her a major star, newcomer Sanaa Lathan, makes this story of athletic ambition and romantic destiny a unique and deserving crowd-pleaser.
The story begins in 1981, as 11-year-old Quincy (Glenndon Chatman) meets his new next-door neighbor while playing basketball with two of his friends. The neighbor, Monica (Kyla Pratt), is invited to play. While Quincy tries to trash talk her, she proceeds to prove she has the skills needed to achieve her dream, to be “the first girl in the NBA.”
Their on-court rivalry quickly turns to “puppy love,” than real friendship, as they comfort each other through difficult times. Quincy’s father (Dennis Haysbert) is a talented NBA journeyman at the end of his playing career with the LA Clippers. He spends a great deal of time away from home, playing and trying to set up business deals for his post-basketball life, straining his marriage to his loving, but pretentious, wife (Debbi Morgan).
Meanwhile, Monica’s love of basketball and desire for a college career puts her at odds with her homemaker mom (Alfre Woodard), who wishes her daughter would grow out of her athletic interests. Monica’s banker father (Harry J. Lennix) and big sister (Regina Hall), however, support her dreams. As the duo finish their senior year in high school, it becomes clear Quincy is headed for major stardom, though his father repeatedly stresses his need to concentrate on getting an education, in addition to playing well. Monica clearly has the drive and desire needed, but too often lets her emotions overrule her on-court instincts. Their shared passion for the game finally helps them to see each other in a new light, leading to a real romance. Their college years prove traumatic, as Quincy’s parents split up.
Meanwhile, Monica grows as a woman and player, leading to conflicts between them over relationship versus career. Lost and angry, Quincy makes several decisions that send them off in different directions, only to have fate and passion bring them together once again. Will it be a final time? Will true love be the winner or loser? Prince-Bythewood does a fine job of letting her story unfold in a natural, unhurried style. She never lets the pacing of the story drag.
The film’s basketball action sequences have a realistic look to them and she does a fine job of mixing and matching close-up scenes of the actors with longer shots of their stand-ins. She gets strong performances from her leads. Epps, who may be the most underrated actor of the current crop of young African-American leading men, is quite good as Quincy. His mix of brashness, charm, boldness and sensitivity is handled well here. Lathan is a real revelation. Not only is she an excellent actress with a beautiful and expressive face, she also has the physical skills needed to make us believe she can play basketball at the highest levels.
All the veteran actors, Haysbert, Woodard, etc., do solid work in their supporting roles. If there are major flaws in the film they lie primarily in the script’s habit of leaning on clichés (the straying athlete and his attraction to money-hungry women; the man who can’t deal with a woman who’s as talented as he is, etc.). The film should rely on the natural drama in the relationship elements of the story. Also, it seems a little strange, not impossible or implausible, just a little strange that Lathan’s Monica wouldn’t be at least a little attracted to someone else during some of Quincy’s more outrageously boneheaded actions.
Add a letter-perfect soundtrack of classic soul/R & B/dance tunes from the ’80s and ’90s, assistance from the NBA, IWBA and WNBA (adding visual credibility to the film), Love & Basketball clearly soars into the rare air inhabited by the kind of movies that make “Best of the Year” lists. It’s certainly a major contender to make mine.