THE MOST ACCURATE movie title so far this year is Love and Basketball, which almost effortlessly combines the two subjects—and the love of the game itself—into a convincing, enjoyable, four-act whole. In first-time director Gina Prince-Bythewood's romantic drama, new girl on the block Monica challenges her mouthy neighbor Quincy to a game of pick-up and shows him just how much game she's got, establishing a relationship that's equal parts competition and attraction. Seven years later (second act, second quarter), the high-school seniors—now played by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps—are both b-ball stars. However, while every college in the country is wooing Quincy, Monica is benched for her bad attitude. Her hot temper doesn't affect her bond with him (even though he has his pick of well-polished girls), but she remains a tomboy.
LOVE AND BASKETBALL
written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
with Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, and Alfre Woodard
opens April 21 at Pacific Place
Everything changes when Monica shows up in a dress at a dance, and—more importantly—gets on the team at USC (where Quincy will play). Their friendship turns into a full-fledged adult relationship, serious and sexual. In college (third quarter), as sweethearts and athletes, they face new challenges—team conflict for her and family strife for him. After USC, both put basketball ahead of romance and go their separate ways. Quincy enters the NBA, while Monica plays professionally in Europe. But she wonders if "being all about ball" is worth it and returns to LA to find him engaged.
Telling a love story in the four-part structure of a basketball game is a clever conceit, although Prince-Bythewood strains a bit to reach a tidy fourth-act conclusion. Yet her directing talents make the seams and edges nearly invisible, and she elicits strong performances from her leads (especially the breakout ing鮵e Lathan, who had never played basketball before) and her supporting actors. She's got a flair for texture and atmosphere—evidenced in scenes of bristly attitude in the women's locker room, California campus life, and on-court sequences—and an ear for late '80s/early '90s music that places an indelible time stamp on the romance. (Kool Mo Dee's "I Go to Work" and Rob Base's "It Takes Two" never sounded better.) But it's mainly the parallel story of women athletes struggling for respect—from their second-tier status in the NCAA to the need for an American pro league—that makes a winner of L&B's familiar but appealing tale of girl-gets-guy.