F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 1, 2017)

1 06 2017

There’s nothing like the NBA Finals to make you appreciate the incredible talent in takes to make it to the top of your game. LeBron James is back in the championship, as he seemingly always is. Back in 2009, King James’ high school years got the documentary treatment in “More Than a Game,” which is little more than hero worship that treats his pre-NBA time as mere prologue to a Hall of Fame career. (Before there was ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, we had to settle for highlight reels disguised as art like that.)

But James is the exception, not the rule. Many great basketball players thrive in high school and display tremendous potential for advancement with their talent. They don’t all make it. Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Lenny Cooke” tells such a story, the darker underbelly of basketball superstardom. For every LeBron James, there are ten Lenny Cookes he must step over on his way to the top.

The Safdie brothers inherit a good deal of footage from producer Adam Shopkorn, whose camera followed Cooke in his high school years in the early 2000s. This was the boom of high school imports into the NBA thanks to players like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. In 2001, Kwame Brown was the first player to go #1 in the NBA Draft without having played a minute of college basketball. It seemed like the beginning of a new era, but little did Lenny Cooke know it was the apex of a trend that was about to come crashing down.

The Safdies find the tragedy inherent in the old footage, which is what elevates their documentary to “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. With scarcely any talking heads, they locate the intersection of hubristic decisions made presuming a straight shot to stardom and the unfortunate coincidence of timing. Were Cooke but a year older, he could likely have ridden Kwame Brown’s to a draft selection in 2001. Yet he came after Brown struggled for playing time, and high school phenomenons no longer received the same benefit of the doubt they once did. There’s no way Cooke could have known this, though footage shows countless instances of coaches and other authority figures exercise caution in presuming that millions of dollars inevitably await every upstart player.

What really pushes the film over the top is the final act, an abrupt cut into Cooke’s life in the 2010s after a short montage of his unspectacular career in B-leagues across the world. He’s gotten large in his post-basketball years (some of which is due to his new profession as a cook) and carries around the bitterness and regret of someone twice his age. The camera tracks him to an NBA game where he sees former competitors like Joachim Noah and Carmelo Anthony, and his jealousy only gets amplified by the lack of attention they pay him. Especially when Cooke goes on a profanity-laced tirade, it’s hard not to think of “Raging Bull.”

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