[Screen It]

(2000) (Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan) (PG-13)

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Drama: Two next-door neighbors, both talented basketball players since they were eleven-years-old, find their passion for each other and succeeding at the sport they love challenged as they make their way through high school, college and the pros.
It's 1981 and 11-year-old Monica Wright (KYLA PRATT) has just moved into a new neighborhood with her sister and parents, Camille (ALFRE WOODARD), a stay at home mom, and Nathan (HARRY J. LENNIX), a banker. A tomboy to the heart, Monica wants nothing to do with being a prissy girl and instead immediately clashes with Quincy McCall (GLENNDON CHATMAN), her new 11-year-old next-door neighbor and son of Nona (DEBBI MORGAN) and Zeke (DENNIS HAYSBERT), a pro basketball player.

Competitive from the start, the two youngsters become lose acquaintances. Years later in high school, both Monica (SANAA LATHAN) and Quincy (OMAR EPPS) are stars of their respective basketball teams. Despite their continued competition, however, the two eventually become a romantic item.

It's then off to USC on basketball scholarships for both of them, although as the star freshman player, he has a much easier time than she does as the only freshman on the women's team where she must prove her worth. As time then passes and various achievements and complications arise in their lives, Monica and Quincy must figure out their futures and their relationship as they soon learn that everything's fair in love and basketball.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although the recent fascination with the women's U.S. soccer team and the moderate success of the WNBA have lessened the disparity a bit, there's still a huge difference between men and women's sports on the high school, college and professional levels. Not only are men's individuals sports better attended in person and more highly watched on TV, but the opportunities for men to succeed, as well as gain wealth and fame are far greater than for women.

Whether it's yet another example of that inequality or simply an honest reflection of that problem, there haven't been that many films based on and/or featuring women's sports figures as compared to the plethora of movies portraying male athletes in high school, college or the pros. In fact, only "A League of Their Own" immediately comes to mind as such a film in the past decade or so.

With this week's release of "Love and Basketball," however, a female athlete once again gets that rare spotlight, although she must share it equally with her male counterpart. Of course, that's the point of this sports/romantic comedy hybrid where the two principal characters compete against each other and face the many challenges their lives, personal goals and eventual romance present to them.

A well-acted and, for the most part, solidly constructed if not particularly spectacular tale, the film is appropriately presented in four quarters, starting with the dual protagonists' first meeting as competitive youngsters through the beginning of their late high school romance that closes out the first half. The third quarter focuses on their time in college and eventually concludes with them being pros in the fourth where the outcome hinges on one last shot, albeit in something of a different than normal fashion than one might expect for a b-ball flick.

As written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (who makes her feature debut after writing for TV shows such as "Felicity" and "A Different World"), the film has a competent and well-crafted feel to it. Avoiding many of the clichés and melodrama that often plague other fledgling auteurs, Prince-Bythewood's picture is mostly credible throughout (despite an ending that's a bit hokey and Hollywood-ish) and near constantly engaging.

It is, however, a bit too long as it doesn't quite have the substance and related material - despite the feel of a mini-epic drama whose story spans many years - to fill up its two hour runtime. In addition, it lacks any real "zing" to make it stand out and thus often comes across like a good second-string player. While it has the necessary skills and techniques, it never quite reaches first-string status and as such, occasionally feels like a glorified, made for TV movie.

What it does have going for it, however, are two strong performances from its leads. Both Omar Epps ("In Too Deep," "The Wood") and Sanaa Lathan ("The Best Man," "Blade") are quite good in their respective roles. Their on again, off again romance and chemistry feels right (when the script doesn't introduce some contrived, but dramatically necessary conflict), and the leads' performances are believable.

That's particularly true for Lathan who had no formal basketball experience before auditioning for the role. After several months of intense training to learn about the game and figure out how to look like a real player, Lathan won the part and her hard work certainly shows on the screen in more than a credible fashion.

Supporting performances are solid and range from Dennis Haysbert ("Random Hearts," "Love Field") as Quincy's flawed father to Alfre Woodard ("Mumford," "Down in the Delta") as Monica's stay at home mom and include Debbie Morgan (TV's "All My Children") and Harry J. Lennix ("Titus") as their respective spouses. Meanwhile, Kyla Pratt ("Dr. Dolittle") and Glenndon Chatman ("Eraser") make the appropriate impressions as the two protagonists at their youngest ages.

Splitting its focus between love and sports, the film does a good job of portraying both, with the discrepancies between men and women's sports obviously get a lot of representative screen time. In addition, this is thankfully yet another film that portrays African-American characters as real people instead of falling prey to the "normal" black stereotypes usually found in the dumb, urban sex comedies and/or "gang-banger" films.

Overall, this is a solidly constructed film with good writing, direction and performances, particularly from its two leads. One only wishes that the film had just a touch more pizzazz to make it jump off the screen and turn into something more memorable. While it is more than just a sports film or romantic drama, this film may turn out to be the equivalent of that second-string player who knows what they're doing, but can't manage to score against the competition, and thus ends up being overwhelmed in the only thing that's important in Hollywood, the final box office score. That will be a shame, but it's the likely future for "Love and Basketball" that rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 7, 2000 / Posted April 21, 2000

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