3 out of 5
Directed by: Safdie Brothers
Lenny Cooke’s story is an interesting one, but not – I’d assume, unfortunately – too uncommon. As a non-basketball fan – Cooke was a highly-touted high school player, with this documentary chronicling his before and after decision of finishing school or committing to the NBA draft – I was definitely still intrigued, and not necessarily as disgusted by the nature of the culture in which Cooke was emerged as I was expecting (from my general disdain of multi-million dollar nonsense), which I think speaks to how even-handedly the Safdie Brothers directed things; still, as a non-documentary fan, I’m not sure if my expectations of what’s represented in the film – which I do ultimately think is uneven – are “normal” or not. But both of these points of views are relevant: none of this is my wheelhouse, and I’d still consider it a worthwhile watch.
The bulk of the movie’s runtime tracks Lenny from 2001 and a couple of years that follow; we learn that he’s been ditching school to flirt with agents and dealings that come with being considered the literal top high school player. There’s a significant amount of training / game footage as Cooke starts up at some elite basketball camps, set to sad jazzy improv in a way that might seem kinda indie cute, but also, effectively, created the kind of divide I needed to watch sports footage, which doesn’t interest me. Furthermore, the Safdies make no attempt at necessarily highlighting Cooke in this footage, or talking up his skills; we’re taking everyone’s word on it, and this also sets a general tone of observation – and not necessarily celebration – of what we’re watching. While this lack of showmanship helps to keep the film compelling, and Lenny the person very, very real – a warts and all kind of scenario – there’s also an incredible lack of context as a result. We know he’s living with a guardian instead of his mother, but not too much about that. He appears to have a… daughter, but his relationship with the girl’s mother isn’t too clear either. The timeline of friends that drop in and out of the picture is murky. Again, this could be purposeful, in order to strip all possible judgments away excepting what we can glean of this smiling, quiet teen who doesn’t appear keen to wake up at 6am and practice, but also isn’t – to our eyes – just jumping at fame, either.
But: when we flash to after the draft, six years on, with Lenny as a man, not playing professional basketball, it makes it harder to suss out the context of what we’ve seen. On the one hand, I think this exterior-element isolation makes that last portion of the film even more thought-worthy, as it forces us to make up our own minds. At the same time, there’s plenty of reflection done in this section – by a fiancé, by reporters, by friends, and (in a questionable concluding segment which is a little too flashy for my tastes) by Lenny himself – which seems comfortable with making a conclusive statement: that all of this business and hype shouldn’t have been foisted upon a teen. The movie lets us know that the draft is no longer able to pluck from high schoolers and college kids.
Despite sports not being my thing, I’ve seen / read both takedown pieces on its stars, and things presented to bring out their humanity. I’ve never had much time for either, though, or much faith in their truth. ‘Lenny Cooke,’ despite an almost frustrating lack of information at times, does succeed in feeling rather real, and is a gripping, worthwhile sports documentary for that sole reason. Artistically, its purposefully limited construction is also of interest, even if I’m half-and-half on how it affects (or was intended to affect) the subject matter.