So far as vanity projects go, Shooting Stars is a refreshingly humble affair, which is perhaps fitting for a global superstar — LeBron James — who’s proven to be thoughtful and responsible with his platform. Despite operating as something of a narrowly-scoped biographical portrait — though that’s largely implicit, due to the way culture consumes celebrity, and our subsequent instinct to spin any tangential narratives to a celebutante center — the film is actually far less reliant on stardom than the insipid corporate junk that was Space Jam: A New Legacy. Rather than explicitly detailing its subject’s rise to the status of mononym and trans-basketball ubiquity, Shooting Stars instead details a teenaged LeBron’s (Mookie Cook) storied high school success — as well as, of course, the obstacles he faced — through the collective, as he manifests a small basketball dynasty with childhood best friends Lil Dru Joyce (Caleb McLaughlin), Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage), Willie McGee (Avery S. Willis Jr.), and Romeo Travis (Scoot Henderson, soon to be a top three NBA draft pick later this month) at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in early-aughts Akron, OH.
Unfortunately, Shooting Stars’ resistance to hagiography is about the only thing refreshing about it. Produced by James — with, quite bafflingly, Terence Winter also on board — it seems clear that the film is informed by the same nostalgia and loyalty that led ‘Bron back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, as a championship-rich stint in the Magic City. The focus here is on the group, with the young basketball phenom situated on the periphery in the early going, in favor of giving screen space to the volatile, chip-on-his-shoulder Lil Dru and Willie, the best basketball player of the group in their pre-high school years. It’s an admirable, self-denying approach to this story, but it’s all unfortunately beset by a mess of cliches and narrative reductions: there are the jealousy- and insecurity-driven interpersonal conflicts that threaten the cohesion of this nu “fab five”; there’s a sprinkling of the bureaucratic bullshit that commodifies amateur athletes for the corporate good and punishes individual gain; and there’s just enough familial texture — Lil Dru’s dad (Wood Harris) is a coach and long-term usher of these boys’ upbringings, while Willie’s barely touched-upon backstory bears far more potential dramatic heft than anything else present — to engender a few light feels in the typical sports flick mode of defining its players by single, simple characteristics.
But in fairness, much (most) of those critiques are closely tethered to generic sports narratives in general rather than specific biographic portraiture of superstar monoliths of athletic prowess. The far more aggrieving issue with Shooting Stars is its TV commercial-level of technical skill. Director Chris Robinson adopts what at best might be called a sub-Remember the Titans approach to should-be kinetic action (or more year- and sport-specific, last month’s White Men Can’t Jump remake) and at worst registers as slightly elevated Luck of the Irish nonsense. All of the actors that have been gathered here are at least legitimately skilled at basketball. (Those who have played the sport know how to spot a fake — anyone remember supposed phenom Hastings Ruckle from the Friday Night Lights TV show?) But it’s all regrettably drowned out by Robinson’s oppressively and embarrassingly silly visual design. The whole thing reeks of slick commercial sheen, with basketball games shot to glaring court brightness and nearly blacked-out bleacher presence (except when we habitually cut to individual reaction shots, fully-lit), while the games themselves are riddled with endless speed ramping, often slow-motioned multiple times within the same play, even the same pass or shot. Add to that the ridiculous compositions — there are so many low angles here you might think Charles Foster Kane took up hoops — and we’re left with little to do with this trumped-up, cable-TV filler.
There’s not even much to do with LeBron James himself. McLaughlin is really the only performer here who shows much presence at all, chewing the screen by virtue of how narcotized everyone else seems. For his part, Cook bears a remarkable resemblance to the young Bron — but a la Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Pac in All Eyez On Me, the effect is largely superficial, with the character rendered personality-poor on screen. Absent any aesthetic prowess, psychological insight into one of the world’s biggest stars, compelling narrative maneuvers, or meta-commentary on how we turn people into product, Shooting Stars has little to define it beyond generic inspo-sports rehash. The film reflects generously on the man that inspired its genesis and his dedication to the brothers he seeks to celebrate, but in execution, that feel-goodery is less an impressive assist than the film version of a game’s-end pity substitution.
You can currently stream Shooting Stars on Peacock.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.