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Love & Basketball

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Love & Basketball

Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps
Director: Gina Prince Blythewood
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: April 2000
Genres: Drama, Romance, Sports

*Also starring: Dennis Haysbert, James DuMont, Harry J. Lennix, Christine Dunford, Alfre Woodard, Debbi Morgan

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The only touch missing from this sweet, poignant, wonderfully acted and directed romance is the voice of Judy Garland on the soundtrack singing Ralph Blane/Hugh Martin's song, "The Boy Next Door." Truth to tell, neither of the two entirely sympathetic, nay, charismatic characters can ignore each other, living literally a hop, skip and jump (which they sometimes do) from each other's bedroom window. In a stunning directorial debut, Gina Prince-Bythewood directs this Spike-Lee produced Cinderella story with a fairy-tale ending that pretty much sums up the connection between two notions heretofore strange to each other, love and basketball.

The ball is in the court of the two players who often make each other jump through hoops rather than admit their mutual affection. The enchanting Sanaa Lathan performs in the starring role of Monica Wright, a woman whose notions of feminism may be half-baked particularly when criticizing her mother's attention to cooking, but who without reading Gloria Steinem or Helen Gurley Brown feels deep down the importance of being an independent woman. Monica would be considered a tomboy back in the fifties, and in fact some viewers may call her that even today though progressive parts of the world recognize highly physical sports as no male monopoly. Monica has her mind set on dribbling, jumping, running. Scoring for her means something different from what it means to a macho man. Her next-door neighbor in the affluent black Los Angeles neighborhood of Baldwin Hills is Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), likewise a person who exists for love of the game, and one who only on some subconscious level realizes that he and Monica love each other even at the tender age of eleven.

Prince-Bythewood divides the movie fittingly enough into quarters, each segment devoted to an aspect of the lives of these two ball players over a period of some twenty years. In the pre-teen phase young Mnica (Kyla Pratt) asks young Quincy (Glenndon Chatman) whether she can join the game. Not long after that Quincy asks the young gamin, "You wanna me my girl?" to which she replies in all naivete, "What do I have to do?" Quincy thinks only that this obligates her to ride the handlebars of his bike--which Monica, in a fit of autonomy that will see her through the next two decades--simply refuses to do. As they mature, both will learn that the unformed idea of independence leads only to loneliness and that each, in turn, must indeed do something for the other if they are to become a team with a fighting chance to win life's game.

While the 27-year-old Omar Epps is long in the tooth to be playing a high school kid--who seems not to age through the years--he is ideally cast as the sometimes petulant athlete who will turn pro and have to fight off the groupies. Sanaa Lathan effectively exchanges emotions, her eyes displaying her loneliness when she is recruited by a pro women's team that plays in Barcelona, jealousy and profound sadness when she learns of Quincy's engagement to be married, ecstasy when involved in a hot game or when she appears close to getting what her heart desires.

In the side roles, Alfre Woodard is an excellent Camille Wright, the mother of Monica, who has had to give up her dreams when she became pregnant but who finds happiness in keeping up her lavish home and counseling her often difficult daughter. A compelling subplot that mirrors the dominant one involves Quincy's dad, Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), who has been caught with his pants down by his unhappy wife Mona (Debbie Morgan) and who, in the fashion of Arthur Miller's Willie Loman loses some of the awe with which his son had always regarded him. One grade-A lesson that Monica learns occurs in college, where she considers herself perpetually picked on by a coach who never lets up on criticizing the young woman's plays. "When I ignore you, then you worry," says the fierce coach, an object lesson on the adage that the opposite of love and concern is not anger but indifference.

"Love and Basketball" has a fairy-tell ending as Quincy, about to marry another, goes one-on-one with Monica for stakes that are far higher than a league championship. This is an effectively done moment of fantasy that brings a sincere, realistic, mature and thoroughly human romantic drama to a close. What positions "Love and Basketball" several points over the recent black endeavor, "The Best Man" is its absence of phoniness, of kitschy scenes designed to evoke cheap laughs. While the brief scenes on the court are well-executed, "Love and Basketball" is a movie that uses the game as a metaphor for life, a contest between two opposing wills whose main object is not victory but sportsmanship, good will, mutual affection and grounded behavior.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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