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Shooting Stars

Although it's being sold as a LeBron James biopic, "Shooting Stars" ends before James has even begun his records-shattering career as an NBA player. Nearly all of its two-hour running time focuses on the relationships between young James (played by acting newcomer Mookie Cook, a small forward for Compass Prep in Jefferson, Oregon); his three best friends; their parents; their schoolmates, and their community. And every moment and image is so perfectly shaped and presented, and rings so true, that you can imagine the same story being told, beat-for-beat, with a cast of invented characters and being every bit as satisfying. The film will be classified as a sports movie, and it deserves that designation: basketball is the glue that binds it. 

But it's ultimately not about basketball, or even sports. It's about what happens to a group of close friends when one of them turns out to be so great at his favorite thing that it would be a sin not to let him move on in life and keep doing it at the level his talent deserves. This is one of the great films about young male friendship, right up there with "I Vitelloni," "Boyz N the Hood," "Mean Streets," "Cooley High," "The Wood," and "Stand By Me." 

Directed by Chris Robinson, who helmed the Netflix movie "Beats" and came up through TV ads, and adapted by Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor from the bestseller by James and H.G. "Buzz" Kissinger ("Friday Night Lights"),"Shooting Stars" follows the "Boyz" template, giving us a prologue—so packed with detail it's practically a compacted first act—with James and his friends as elementary schoolers, then jumps ahead to follow them through four years of high school. They're a tight crew from a working class neighborhood. They call themselves the Fab Four. Their days and nights revolve around basketball: when they aren't actually on the paint, they're playing basketball video games and fantasizing about their pro ball careers. The screenwriters distribute their attention democratically among the four. All get exciting, funny, or sorrowful moments. The movie is not about LeBron James and everyone else. It's the tale of four friends, one of whom happens to be LeBron James.

Besides James, there's Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage), whose wit is as quick as his reflexes; Willie McGee (Avery Wills), a hardy ally and a bit of a daredevil; and Dru Joyce III (Caleb McLaughlin), whose thoughtful and rock-steady dad Dru II (Wood Harris) coaches their team. Dru III is the film's breakout character, not just because McLaughlin, whose has a live-wire Baby Tupac vibe, is such an exciting actor, but because the character is a natural scene-stealer: a small guy with a big heart, a warrior's nerve, and the skills to back his bravado. He's also the most active of the four main characters. It's Dru III who hears his dad predict that once they feed into Buchtel High, the local public high school, the Fab Four will have to split up because the program will put the short kid on junior varsity, and gets the rest obsessed with applying instead to a mostly white local Catholic high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary. It's Dru who approaches the Catholic school's incoming head basketball coach Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) and overcomes his skepticism about Dru's pitch to bring in all four friends, including this bite-sized, motormouthed one, by sinking a series of consecutive, nearly immaculate three-pointers. 

Most "based on a true story" films would have given this sort of moment, which breaks the needle on the Badass-O-Meter, to the young LeBron James instead. But it was Dru's moment in life, so he's the one who claims it onscreen. There's an integrity to this choice and so many more that not only gives "Shooting Stars" a guiding integrity but heart as well. This is not a movie that lives by the cynical maxim of screenwriter William Goldman that a Hollywood script needs to "give the star everything." The funniest lines invariably pop out of the mouth of Sian (when they're all sharing a room at a La Quinta motel during a road game, and somebody asks what La Quinta means, he deadpans, "It means you flunked Spanish, fool"). When a tall new kid with a scary reputation named Romeo Travis (NBA G player Scoot Henderson) enrolls at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and the Fab Four befriend him rather than believe the negative hype and steer clear, it isn't just a way for the film to needlessly restate that the Fab Four are wonderful guys; Romeo gets woven into the story and proves central to some of its most exciting and moving moments of friendship and generosity. 

The same democratic storytelling spirit is applied to the supporting characters, especially the parents and coaches. Each could anchor their own subjective account. Harris is perfect as a soft-spoken, empathetic father who knows how to soften the sting of bad news, and delivers rousing speeches not merely by raising his voice, but making every listener feel the truth of his words. As James's mother Gloria, Natalie Paul (of "The Deuce" and "Power") is so elegant and understated—and connects so intuitively with Cook, a screen natural who doesn't so much perform as exist—that all of the mom-and-son scenes attain uncanny intimacy. It's as if you're a silent witness to the sorts of small but defining exchanges that films rarely think to depict. (Among its other virtues, this film is further validation of what we already know to be true: many of the most important moments in a young person's life occur at the kitchen table or on the living room sofa.) Mulroney isn't in the film much—this is true to life; the real Dambrot left St. Vincent-St. Mary before the end of his first season to coach the Duquesne Dukes—but he makes a strong impression, reinforcing the character's plot function, which is to foreshadow James's inevitable ascent to the NBA pantheon and remind both the young heroes and the audience that sometimes life offers you opportunities so great that to refuse to pursue them would be a crime, not just against one's own potential, but against friends and family whose encouragement got you to that point. 

Robinson's direction, Karsten Gopinath's cinematography, Jo Francis's editing, and Mark Isham's score work harmoniously to put across the text and subtext of each moment, large or small. Even workaday shots have meaning and purpose. An overhead image of the Catholic school team and its Black players doing pre-practice stretches on a gym floor emblazoned with cartoon leprechauns sums up the heroes' cultural context better than dialogue could. 

Beyond that, it's a fun film to just to watch. It keeps finding imaginative ways to communicate the exuberance of being a teenager striding through life, armored by the loyalty of friends. Playful drone shots zoom along behind a bicyclist; zip through an open window and chase an actor through a small apartment; and (incredibly) follow a slam-dunked ball through a hoop. These moments are a visual corollary for that elating feeling you get when your mind, body and spirit are are so attuned that you feel like physics can't restrain you.  

Most of the scenes are short. This is not an epic and doesn't aspire to be one. But at the same time, you never feel as if relevant side issues are being ignored. Notice, for instance, how "Shooting Stars" weaves in racism by white characters against Black ones, as well as intra-racial or class-based anxiety. The latter is steeped in bad blood between Black players and parents who've decided to pursue advancement at a white Catholic academy and those who've pledged their loyalty to the neighborhood Black public high school that has baked-in social credibility but few resources. You can see each side's point. 

A lot of the wider tensions enfolding the characters are presented this way. This, too, feels true-to-life. Some problems can't be solved by individuals; they're systemic, and that's why they persist. Rather than code characters or "sides" as good or bad, then punish one of them to concoct a simplistic but reassuring outcome, "Shooting Stars" wants us to accept unresolved conflicts and sit with them. (Here, too, though, the movie makes sure to add humor whenever possible, even in otherwise tense scenes; when one character calls another a sellout, the target of the insult shouts, "Who you callin' a sellout, Tony? You still owe me a hundred dollars!")

Love is the word. When a movie loves its characters and story as much as this one, and dedicates every aspect of filmmaking and performance to doing them justice, and consistently puts virtuosity in service of meaning, the result conjures a feeling that's close to what you experience when someone you adore has a great and richly deserved success, and you're privileged to be able to witness it and cheer them on.

Now playing on Peacock. 

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

Shooting Stars movie poster

Shooting Stars (2023)

Rated PG-13 for strong language, some suggestive references and teen drinking.

Cast

Mookie Cook as LeBron James

Caleb McLaughlin as Dru 'Lil Dru' Joyce III

Algee Smith as Illya McGee

Dermot Mulroney as Keith Dambrot

Wood Harris as Dru Joyce II

Natalie Paul as Gloria James

Katlyn Nichol as Savannah Brinson

Avery Serell Wills Jr. as Willie McGee

Scoot Henderson as Romeo Travis

Khalil Everage as Sian Cotton

Director

Writer (based on the book by)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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