But it’s ultimately not about basketball, or even sports. It’s about what happens to a group of close friends when one of them turns out to be so great at his favorite thing that it would be a sin not to let him move on in life and keep doing it at the level his talent deserves. This is one of the great films about young male friendship, right up there with “I Vitelloni,” “Boyz N the Hood,” “Mean Streets,” “Cooley High,” “The Wood,” and “Stand By Me.”
Directed by Chris Robinson, who helmed the Netflix movie “Beats” and came up through TV ads, and adapted by Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor from the bestseller by James and H.G. “Buzz” Kissinger (“Friday Night Lights“),”Shooting Stars” follows the “Boyz” template, giving us a prologue—so packed with detail it’s practically a compacted first act—with James and his friends as elementary schoolers, then jumps ahead to follow them through four years of high school. They’re a tight crew from a working class neighborhood. They call themselves the Fab Four. Their days and nights revolve around basketball: when they aren’t actually on the paint, they’re playing basketball video games and fantasizing about their pro ball careers. The screenwriters distribute their attention democratically among the four. All get exciting, funny, or sorrowful moments. The movie is not about LeBron James and everyone else. It’s the tale of four friends, one of whom happens to be LeBron James.
Besides James, there’s Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage), whose wit as as fast as his reflexes; Willie McGee (Avery Wills), a hardy ally and a bit of a daredevil; and Dru Joyce III (Caleb McLaughlin), whose thoughtful and rock-steady dad Dru II (Wood Harris) coaches their team. Dru III is the film’s breakout character, not just because McLaughlin, whose live-wire edge gives off Baby Tupac vibes, is such an exciting actor, but because the character is a real life scene-stealer: a small guy with a big heart, a warrior’s nerve, and the skills to back up his bravado. It’s Dru III who hears his dad predict that once they feed into Buchtel High School, the local public high school, the Fab Four will have to split up because the program will put the short kid on junior varsity, and gets the rest excited about applying instead to a mostly white local Catholic high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary. And it’s Dru who approaches the Catholic school’s incoming head basketball coach Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) and overcomes his skepticism about Dru’s pitch to bring in all four friends, including this bite-sized, motormouthed one, by sinking a series of consecutive, nearly immaculate three-pointers.
Most “based on a true story” films would have given this sort of moment, which breaks the needle on the Badass-O-Meter, to the young LeBron James instead. But it was Dru’s moment in life, so he’s the one who claims it onscreen. There’s an integrity to this choice and so many more that not only gives “Shooting Stars” a central, guiding integrity but heart as well. This is not a movie that lives by the cynical maxim of screenwriter William Goldman that a Hollywood script needs to “give the star everything.” The funniest lines invariably pop out of the mouth of Sian (when they’re all sharing a room at a La Quinta motel during a road game, and somebody asks what La Quinta means, he deadpans, “It means you flunked Spanish, fool”). When a tall new kid with a scary reputation named Romeo Travis (NBA G player Scoot Henderson) enrolls at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and the Fab Four befriend him rather than believe the negative hype and steer clear, it isn’t just a way for the film to needlessly restate that the Fab Four are wonderful guys; Romeo gets woven into the story and proves central to some of its most exciting and moving moments of friendship and generosity.