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Love & Basketball (Criterion Collection)
Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed this Spike-Lee produced romantic sports drama that begins in 1981 Los Angeles, where Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt in youth, Sanaa Lathan as an adult) meets Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman in youth, Omar Epps as an adult) when Monica's family arrives from Atlanta. The pair bonds over basketball, at first squabbling on the court, because Quincy is not used to getting shown up by a girl, but soon becoming inseparable. The kids hope to follow their hoop dreams and play for prestigious college and professional teams, but, at first, are not taken seriously by other friends and family. In high school, Quincy's natural talent has blossomed, and he has to work far less hard for success. Monica becomes frustrated that she cannot keep up with other teammates, and her fiery attitude threatens to get her kicked off the court. It does not help that Monica's mother Camille (Alfre Woodard) is cold and critical, which sends Monica to college with a chip on her shoulder that threatens to alienate Quincy.
This is certainly more of a romantic drama than basketball film, though the sport is certainly the backbone of the narrative. The film unfolds in several parts: during Monica and Quincy's childhoods, their high-school years, college days, and the years after college. Epps and Lathan have excellent chemistry and Prince-Bythewood crafts a film that realistically depicts the ups and downs of childhood friendships and adult relationships. The pair has never graduated to lovers until both are accepted to the University of Southern California and end up hooking up on the eve of moving to college. Things get rocky for the couple when the pressures of being a collegiate athlete begin to eat away at their relationship. Quincy is an instant star and the center of attention, while Monica fights with her coach and Quincy before finally landing a starting position. After a fight, Quincy cheats on Monica, ending their relationship.
The film then moves forward in time, as Quincy struggles to earn playing time with the Los Angeles Lakers and Monica excels in Barcelona with the International Women's Basketball Association. Despite a decisive championship victory, Monica realizes that her love of basketball may be robbing her of familial and romantic relationships at home. An injury brings Quincy and Monica back together again in the United States, and the chemistry is still apparent. This reunion allows each character to look internally and begin resolving the conflicts that initially caused their separation. They ultimately meet for a high-stakes game of one-on-one, which will decide their fates.
This well-acted film does a nice job exploring the pressures young athletes face at home and on the court, and Love & Basketball offers human drama that feels grounded in reality and relatable. Quincy must learn from the mistakes of his own father (Dennis Haysbert), an NBA player whose sins gutted their family, and Monica finally convinces Camille to drop her icy demeanor, which is not solely based in the woman's selfishness. Epps and Lathan are both very good in these roles, and my chief complaint with the film is that the pacing and stop-start narrative are at times frustrating. This can cause sections of Love & Basketball to feel like a string of vignettes, but this is not a fatal flaw, thanks to its other attributes. The film is also unique in that it is shot largely from Monica's point of view, a rarity in sports films, and Prince-Bythewood never asks this character to stray from her core values. A solid romantic drama now presented as part of the Criterion Collection, Love & Basketball is certainly worth checking out.
Criterion offers a 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that is sourced from a 4K master. This is a wonderfully filmic presentation, and I suspect it accurately replicates the theatrical experience. Fine-object detail and texture are excellent. Colors are nicely saturated, black levels are good, shadow detail is abundant, and highlights are kept in check. The textures of fabrics and sets are abundant, and I noticed no compression issues.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack supports the dialogue-heavy film appropriately, and I noticed no issues with crowding or distortion. The soundtrack includes many great songs from the era, and these sound excellent. Ambient effects make use of the surrounds, and all elements are balanced appropriately. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in Criterion's typical clear case with two-sided artwork. The included booklet includes an essay and technical information on the film. Extras include a vintage Audio Commentary by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Sanaa Lathan and an Audio Commentary by Gina Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire and composer Terence Blanchard. You also get Athletes and Artists and Love & Basketball (22:19/HD), an interesting conversation between Prince-Bythewood, WNBA legend Sheryl Swoops and writer/producer/actor Lena Waithe; Editing Love & Basketball (16:24/HD), with remarks from Prince-Bythewood and Shropshire; Playing for Your Heart: The Making of Love & Basketball (38:06/HD), an excellent new piece with remarks from cast and crew; Deleted Scenes with optional director commentary (8:02 total/HD); Audition Tapes (9:26/HD) from Lathan, Epps and others; short films Stitches (31:15/HD) and Progress (2:51/HD) from the director with an Introduction (3:58/HD); and the Trailer (2:32/HD).
Gina Prince-Bythewood's romantic drama Love & Basketball arrives as part of the Criterion Collection. This well-acted film follows two friends as they navigate a life driven by basketball and offers excellent performances from its leads. The Blu-ray provides an excellent transfer and soundtrack and worthwhile supplements. Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.