I might be judged for this one, but whatevs. It’s my series!
#14. Love and Basketball
I can’t remember why I saw this movie for the first time. I know that its original advertising did nothing for me. It didn’t call to me. It looked totally formulaic – and – even worse than that – phony. Something about the commercials turned me off. I think obviously they were trying to market it as a sports movie AND a chick flick – so that they didn’t turn the guys off or the girls off – and they ended up pleasing no one.
But for whatever reason, I rented it a couple of years ago and was totally delighted with the entire film. Yes, it is a formula – on many levels (boy and girl first hate each other, then boy and girl realize they love each other) – a competitive sports film … but it treats the formulae with respect, but also individuality. Because don’t we sometimes fit into a formula? There aren’t all that many individual experiences in the world. Love/lust/sports … all of these things kind of look the same, regardless of the participants. It’s HOW you tell the story that matters. It’s the CHARACTERS that matter. And in Love and Basketball, we meet two characters who do not seem to behave in certain ways just because the script tells them to … they both appear to have lives of their own. They act the way they do not because it’s a formula film, but because that is who they are. You don’t realize how refreshing that is, how rare … until you see a movie like this, that fits into a formula, yet also messes with it … expands upon it … and invests in the characters.
I was turned off by the advertising and I imagine that that was the same for a lot of people – but I count this movie not as a “great” film, by any stretch of the imagination – but CERTAINLY under-rated, and probably “labeled” incorrectly – in video stores as well as in people’s heads. It’s not JUST a romantic “comedy” – it’s actually a flat-out romance, PERIOD. But it’s also a sports movie. It’s a movie that is about people who want something in life more than just “love” (duh. Hence: the title). Its that blessed rarity: a movie that allows its characters to be complex. We just watch it unfold. We think we know her … or him … then we realize: Oh. No. Have to adjust my opinion of him because of that moment. I love scripts that do that. And its unexpected here, because the whole thing seems, in its exterior, to be so stock. But Monica and Quincy, our two leads, are real people. They don’t have “quirks” to make them endearing to us as audience members. They have personalities. Huge difference.
Monica (Sanaa Lathan – a marvelous actress) and Quincy (Omar Epps – not too shabby himself) play a couple who have a lot going on outside their relationship. They have been together since high school. They are both fierce competitive basketball players. Women’s basketball is becoming important and recognized – this isn’t a movie where the female has nowhere to turn with her athletic ability … you can make good money now, as a professional athlete – on sports that were closed to women just one generation ago! So she’s into that. She’s as good a ballplayer as he is. She’s a tomboy (much to the chagrin of her mother, her sisters, etc. – who look at her sweat-suit-ed figure with dismay). But Quincy, who has his own issues (his father was a pro basketball player himself – so there’s lots of tension and competition with daddy going on … and his father kind of isn’t there for him. Not a good father) … anyway, Quincy doesn’t seem to mind the tomboy thing. He likes her. He can relax with her. There are great scenes early on – before they become a couple – when Quincy (who lives next door to her) leaves his house in the middle of the night, because his parents are fighting … and climbs through Monica’s window to crash on her floor. There is a lovely sweet relationship here. Much of it unspoken. They freely express themselves when they play one on one … which takes on more of a sexual vibe later in their relationship … yet it still has the FEELING of their first one-on-one, when they were kids.
I liked these details. It made these people feel real to me. Much of the dialogue is quite stock … but nobody is PLAYING it stock. It’s also not swayed particularly towards the female perspective – it’s equal. There are TWO leads here. TWO journeys. She’s not always in the right, he’s not always in the wrong. He talks a big game … and he’s a star in his sport at college … but he has a lot of personal problems, his parents marriage breaking up, lots of things tearing him apart. And Monica, who is taken up with her own college education, not to mention basketball, doesn’t always show up for Quincy. No more can he crawl through her window and crash on her floor when things get rough. They live in a dorm. They have curfews. They’ve had sex now – which changes everything.
The film is true to its title. It’s not (in my opinion) a chick flick masquerading as a sports movie. Both sides get equal weight. These two characters have been neck and neck in competition for years. But now he starts to pull ahead. He wants to go pro. He feels like his education is stupid, useless – what’s the point if you’re going to go pro, anyway? Also, there’s the spectre of his famous father he has to handle. He basicallly wants to go one on one with the son-of-a-bitch of his old man.
It’s an accurate portrayal of college life, I thought – especially college students who are driven towards a particular goal – not just kids who are there to get an education and then get some job when they graduate. Monica and Quincy have to study, get good grades, maintain their scholarships, and bump up their game to a college level. They can’t slack off. They both know what they want.
The script – by Gina Prince-Bythewood (who also directed) is delicate. Insightful. And, in its own small way, completely unstereotypical. For example: scenes go WAY longer than they do in other films. It’s noticeable. Monica and Quincy sit in his dorm room, or sit in her bedroom … and have long conversations. Not just about their relationship, but everything. Their lives, their goals, their dreams (either together, or separate) … they have fights, misunderstandings … She, sometimes, doesn’t feel like a “real” girl, because she doesn’t know how to sit like a lady, or wear heels. She doesn’t feel able to compete with the “hos” who present themselves to Quincy on a daily basis. Quincy is tender with her. Sexy, too. Their one-on-one games show their dynamic beautifully. They are doing multiple things at the same time: it’s a form of foreplay, a form of conversation, too – much trash-talk and banter – and it’s also a serious game. But back to the script: even the fights they have about their relationship, go to places I wouldn’t expect … She doesn’t get yet that sometimes she is wrong. She can’t compromise. But he doesn’t get either that there are some things you cannot ask of another person. It’s complicated. He is, in his way, pleading with her … he NEEDS her right now. He needs that girl who would silently go to her window when he would knock in the middle of the night, open it up, throw a pillow on the floor for him – all without saying a word, and go back to sleep. Wordless comfort. Knowing she is THERE. But they aren’t kids anymore. And, as so often happens in life, especially when you’re young … you can’t stop the runaway train of your own life long enough to see how you might be affecting others.
Nobody’s a villain here. Lots of romance movies turn me off with their slant towards the female. You know: men need to CHANGE in order for the woman to accept him. I have a hard time with movies like that. Love & Basketball does NOT go that way … and sometimes you think it might … but it does NOT.
The movie is basically about growing the hell UP.
How will it turn out? Will one of them have to succumb to the other? Will he have to turn into a ‘good boy’ in order to gain her trust? Will she have to bust out the heels like Olivia Newton-John at the end of Grease to prove her worth? The movie resists all of these cliches … and things work out the way they’re supposed to … but you could never see any of it coming. Just like in life. And it makes sense.
And the script – while obviously in a vernacular that is its own – is clever – and hearkens back to the banter-y movies of the 1930s and 40s – when it was about giving as good as you got … and also: it has that Howard Hawks sensibility: anger usually means attraction. If she acts like she DOESN’T care? Well, you’re in like Flynn, boy. Rosalind Russell moaning, “Walter, you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.” in His Girl Friday. All those two do in that movie is BAIT one another … constantly … and that’s how you know they love each other.
It’s the most un-sentimental thing I can think of. And dialogue like this below has the same thing going on:
Monica: [reads note from girl to Quincy] “Q, you are soooooo fine. I been wantin’ to get with you. Take me to the Spring Dance and I promise I’ll leave you satisfied.”
Monica: Ughh… What a *HO*
Quincy: Why she gotta be a ho? Cuz she wan’ get wit me?
Monica: She’s a HO ’cause she’s sending her coochie through the mail
Quincy: At least she’s honest
Monica: Yeah… an honest tramp-ass ho.
Quincy: Didn’t know you cared so much.
Monica: I don’t.
I think the movie is not just sweet, but insightful and smart – about love, basketball, dreams, ambition – not to mention the two main characters, with their ups, downs, and one-on-ones. I really cared about both of them. Wonderful acting from the two leads, subtle and sweet.
Like I said, I wouldn’t call Love & Basketball “great” – but I would call it something that is sometimes even better: “satisfying”.
More in my Under-rated Movies Series:
This post covers 5: Ball of Fire, Only Angels Have Wings, Dogfight, Zero Effect and Manhattan Murder Mystery