He coulda been somebody, a contender, instead of a cautionary tale—which is the takeaway of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s portrait of high-school hoops legend Lenny Cooke. At least, that’s what one thinks might be the message of their loose-limbed, somewhat muddled look at an athlete who appeared to be headed straight for NBA superstardom; it’s a little difficult to discern what they’re after exactly. Archival footage finds Cooke wowing crowds at a prestigious basketball camp, taking on other up-and-comer hotshots like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. We find out (kind of) that he bypassed college recruiters and went straight for the 2002 NBA draft, from which he emerged unpicked. Hints of hubris, suggestions of a possible lack of discipline and intimations of living it up instead of training hard dog Cooke’s chances. Later, we see him as an older, thicker gentleman, his dreams dashed, crying at a birthday party he’s thrown for himself.
The great white hopes of today’s microbudget-cinema ballers, the Safdies have always used a shambling, sloppy style (spiced with occasional doses of surreality) to their advantage, imbuing works about layabouts and losers like Daddy Long Legs (2009) with a form-meets-content aesthetic. That type of approach might not benefit a sports documentary, however, and though the brothers have created the polar opposite of a formulaic ESPN 30-for-30 episode, they don’t chart Cooke’s rise-and-fall arc in a way that lets you into his story. Thank God they don’t try to reduce Cooke’s bad luck and worse choices into a snug little social-issues thesis. But you walk away with far more questions than answers—a profile foul by any other name.
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