American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In 2001, Lenny Cooke was the #1 ranked high school basketball player, placing higher than Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and LeBron James. Filmmaker Adam Shopkorn chronicled Cooke's rise in over 100 hours of footage. Shopkorn turned down a request to follow LeBron James, though James did pass Shopkorn's viewfinder on more than one occasion. When Cooke went undrafted in 2002, Shopkorn abandoned his Lenny Cooke movie. In 2009, the footage was acquired by sibling directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, who edited it into the documentary "Lenny Cooke."
In addition to shaping the material, the Safdies append it with new footage shot in 2012 with an older, somewhat wiser Lenny Cooke. Before the new section kicks in, "Lenny Cooke" has a refreshing fly-on-the-wall feeling. It doesn't rely on talking heads to drive the narrative. We follow Cooke as his high school star rises, meeting his best friend, his coaches, his mother, and the aforementioned future NBA stars Anthony, Stoudemire and James. We also meet the wealthy woman who takes him into her Old Tappan, New Jersey home so his high school career won't be interrupted.
Cooke is an impressionable teenager, but this isn't a film about a good kid gone bad. There's a level of introspection to Cooke, who is often seen discussing his options about going to college vs. entering the NBA draft straight out of high school. Cooke and his buddies discuss Kwame Brown, who entered the draft the year before Cooke's eligibility, and consider what they'd do with the salary Brown was offered. Their dreamy ideas are countered by former NBA coach Mike Fratello, who presents a shocking breakdown of just how little a million dollars will get you in the NBA. After taxes, agents, fees, insurance and other necessities, a player was making less money than someone with far less yearly gross.
It would seem that Shopkorn made the wrong decision by following Cooke, but hindsight is 20/20. When Cooke enters the draft in 2002, he was hotter than the younger LeBron James. One of the best scenes in "Lenny Cooke" details Cooke's big game against James, the outcome of which looked like many last second King James heartbreakers. There's also footage of Cooke squaring off with his fellow draftee Stoudemire. When the draft ended, Stoudemire was on his way to the NBA, and Cooke was never called to the league.