by Travis DeShong Featured Film Streaming Scene

Stephen Curry: Underrated — Peter Nicks

July 21, 2023

Following his loose trilogy of Oakland-based documentaries, Peter Nicks returns to spotlight arguably the most dynamic professional basketball player of the last decade. Golden State Warriors’ point guard and sharpshooter extraordinaire, Stephen Curry is the closest thing to a David figure the NBA has in its forest of Goliaths. Underrated opens with Reggie Miller, another all-time great 3-point shooter, reading Curry’s pre-NBA draft report and highlighting the criticisms. At 6’2” Curry’s short (by NBA standards). He’s scrawny and not viewed as an exceptional athlete. He’s believed to rely too heavily on his absurdly accurate long-distance shooting and shies away from physical defenses. Consistent is the suspicion that his abilities won’t translate well from the college to pro level, that he is a finesse player entering a league historically dominated by taller, faster, and more well-muscled men who banged shoulders in the post or blew by opponents for rim-rocking dunks. That Curry ultimately ended up dominating and heralding the explosion of the 3-ball — effectively bending the league to his will — granted him iconic status. Nicks takes this icon and attempts to peel back the layers of his personal history for us to come to know him, or at least better know why he is so compelling.

At the opening of Underrated, Curry is already an established legend. He swishes his 2,974th record-breaking 3-pointer in Madison Square Garden, the same arena where, on February 27, 2013, he scored 54 points to announce his arrival as a budding superstar. But he wasn’t always the knockdown shooter fans know him to be today; he altered his shooting form the summer after his freshman year of high school. We see archival footage of his misses before we snap to the present to watch him demolish a shooting drill. Past and present run parallel, and Nicks repeatedly switches between these two arcs, finding small resonances that bleed across time. Curry takes a leap in high school, yet is still under-recruited. But the basketball staff at Davidson College takes notice and extend him an offer. It feels, in hindsight, like a match meant to be: the undersized, skinny kid playing for the small, overlooked North Carolina school competing in one of the nation’s most marginal athletic conferences. One of Underrated‘s arcs follows Curry’s improbable rise at Davidson, overcoming the odds and the naysayers. The second arc — also secondary in terms of screen time — charts Curry’s course during the Warriors’ 2021-22 NBA season, two years removed from their previous dynastic heights.

For his part, Curry is a likeable protagonist. He boasts a laid-back charm that masks an intense drive, and in the film’s interviews, he’s candid and at ease, though perhaps because he’s never required to enter any truly uncomfortable territory. In other words, the film feels squarely inbounds. Curry and his loved ones mostly remain at a certain remove, but though the present-day, at-home segments are precise, offering peeks into the superstar’s routine and domestic life without ever overstaying their welcome; it may be true that a viewer could find Curry just as nonchalantly engaging in an ESPN interview or on a JJ Redick podcast episode. After all, Curry is still an active competitor and has a brand image to maintain, as a quick cut to him shooting a Subway commercial reminds us, and Nicks’ film is not an ESPN 30-for-30 expose, nor does it offer the juicy intrigue of a series like The Last Dance. Rather than baring Curry’s soul to the audience, Nicks is more interested in distilling the essence of Curry’s appeal down to a single idea: no one thought this guy could do this. Well before he was a household name, he was still uniquely singular, and listening to him reflect on the peculiarity of his early basketball journey is where the viewer can most richly glean how the blend of his faith, family support, and dogged work ethic gave him the shot to become something special.

Still, Underrated is primarily dedicated to Curry’s career at Davidson, the portion of his legacy that is complete. Here is where all the quintessential sports documentary elements work their magic: editing pyrotechnics, the score’s crescendos, flashy montages, the abundant archival footage. Seemingly every game is made to tell a story, and it’s in these smaller-scale setbacks and triumphs that Curry manages to win viewers over. Placing us in the past, with intermittent flashes to the Curry of today, Nicks achieves that sought-after, spellbinding effect of showing greatness in its incipient stages; in a culture that enshrines individual brilliance, there’s nothing that whets the appetite quite like potential. As both Curry and Davidson’s profiles rise, it feels as if things are swelling toward an illustrious inevitability. The parallel arc structure succeeds, then, by allowing the college arc to end with the notion of unfinished business, only for the contemporaneous to carry the narrative forward and culminate in a resounding payoff. The result is a film that is entertaining without rising to revelatory, an enjoyable watch for anyone wishing to spend some more time with one of the NBA’s preeminent faces during the long offseason lull.

DIRECTOR: Peter Nicks;  CAST: —;  DISTRIBUTOR: Apple TV+;  IN THEATERS & STREAMING: July 21;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 50 min.

You can currently stream Stephen Curry: Underrated on Apple TV+.