XXX "Love and Basketball," with Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert. Directed and written by Gina Prince-Bythewood. 124 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of sexuality and language.
"Love and Basketball" certainly lives up to its name. It's about the love that two basketball players - Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) - have for the game and one another. And while the basketball isn't bad, it's the love that recommends the movie.
"Basketball" is divided into four acts, or quarters. The first is set in 1981, when the Wrights, a banking couple from Atlanta, move next door to the McCalls in a prosperous Los Angeles neighborhood. A children's pick-up game is in progress and one of the new kids gets involved. But a cap is removed and - oops - turns out the new kid is a girl. Doesn't matter, though, because the girl's got sass and moves, and the two-on-two game is tight until frustrations get the better of young Quincy and he shoves her to the ground, permanently scarring her cheek.
Quincy's father is Zeke McCall of the L.A. Clippers, and there's a nice scene where Quincy tries to write an apology to the new girl, Monica. He says in frustration, "I can't do this (expletive)." Zeke - the deep-voiced actor Dennis Haysbert, best-known as Pedro Cerrano in the "Major League" movies - scolds him. "What did I tell you about using that word?" he demands. The boy sighs, shrugs, then repeats his father's mantra: " `Can't' shouldn't be part of a man's vocabulary."
The second quarter takes us to 1988 and Crenshaw High School, where Quincy and Monica are both seniors and basketball stars. He's highly recruited and popular, while everyone complains about her attitude. Ironic, because Sanaa Lathan has less attitude than her 11-year-old counterpart (Kyla Pratt plays Monica in the childhood scenes).
Instead she exudes a kind of sad-eyed vulnerability, even when she's accusing her mother (Alfre Woodard, playing a genteel Southerner) of worrying she's a lesbian.
OK, let's face it: Romances have a predictable pattern - boy meets girl, yadda yadda - so one simply hopes for a little subtlety and originality along the way, and this writer-director Gina Prince delivers.
One night in bed, for example, Quincy hears his mother and father arguing (he used to hear them making love), so he climbs out his window, walks 20 feet over to Monica's house, and raps on her window.
With a few muttered, sleepy words, he climbs in and sleeps on the floor; it's obvious they've been through this before.
In a quiet, subtle way, it reveals the depth of their friendship.
Their love blossoms at USC, where again he's a star while she's struggling to make the woman's team. Then opportunity knocks for her just as he's devastated by a revelation about his father.
For a time we get whiffs of "A Star Is Born" - the rising female against the falling male - but thankfully the movie doesn't go completely in that direction either.
If there's a fault here it's in the character of Quincy McCall, who's a little generic and bland, and condemns his father too greatly for his indiscretions.
Obviously Gina Prince knows how to write a good female lead (a woman who acts more than is acted upon, for a change), but her male characters need work.
The whole "he's got a problem with his father" while "she's got a problem with her mother" is a bit too compartmentalized, too, with speeches and resolutions tied together too neatly.
But this is a romance movie and the main questions are: "Did you believe in the love?" and "Did it make you feel good?" Answers to both: Yes.