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LOVE AND BASKETBALL

by: Scott Renshaw

Love for the game of basketball -- and for women's basketball in particular -- fills virtually every frame of Gina Price-Bythewood's Love and Basketball. The first-time filmmaker grasps the frustrations of female athletes struggling against societal expectations and limited opportunities to make their passion part of their lives. She gets inside the head of a basketball player as she makes split-second game decisions. She even does something I never expected to see in a sports film, something that sent this hoops purist into a rapture: She has her heroine win a big game not by taking the last shot, but by taking an offensive foul.

Yes, Gina Price-Bythewood knows her ball, and she knows the psychology of women who love the game. She knows them well enough that it makes up for the sluggish narrative to which she attaches them. The story begins in 1981, where the Wright family moves in next door to the McCall family in their Los Angeles neighborhood. Middle-school hoops junkies Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman) and Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt) instantly develop a competitive love-hate relationship, one that reaches full bloom when Quincy (Omar Epps) and Monica (Sanaa Lathan) excel for their high school teams. That relationship turns more to love than hate in college, but their personal lives begin colliding with their hoop dreams. While Quincy's desire to follow in his father Zeke's (Dennis Haysbert) footsteps to the NBA is complicated by a startling revelation, Monica's professional aspirations collide with notions of femininity espoused by her housewife mother (Alfre Woodard) and even Quincy himself.

Love and Basketball gets off to an appealing start with the adolescent tug-of-war between Quincy and Monica. There's a nice scene in which the two 11-year-olds go from first kiss to knock-down brawl in the space of a few seconds, neatly summarizing the competitiveness that will sabotage their mutual attraction. Price-Bythewood is interested most strongly in the second-class status of women athletes, and the fierce attitude Monica develops as she struggles with the tacit disapproval of her mother and the awareness that her quest to be a pro may be over before it begins. Sanaa Lathan does a wonderful job as Monica, capturing the moping tomboy, the uncertain teenager and the ever-more-confident athlete with strength and grace. It takes a special performance to lend credibility to wild swings of emotion. Lathan nails every twist in Monica's life journey.

Monica is such a dynamic individual presence that she overwhelms almost everything else in Love and Basketball. In theory, the film follows the careers of both Quincy and Monica equally, but it's always evident where Price-Bythewood's heart is. Quincy's character is far less interesting from the outset, since he's already a high school star. When Quincy and Monica get together, Price-Bythewood lets Quincy off the hook by not exploring the blow to his ego when Monica's fortunes begin to eclipse his own. Nearly every time Quincy or his family are drawn into the story, there's a palpable loss of energy, a more predictable arc to the drama. The "love" part of Love and Basketball starts to feel tacked on for the sake of convention. Making it a story with two equal protagonists repeatedly makes it evident that Price-Bythewood doesn't understand Quincy nearly as well as she understands Monica.

Love and Basketball is structured in four time period segments over some dozen years, each segment identified as a basketball "quarter." By the time the film draws to a close after two hours, you may feel as though it has gone into at least one overtime. Gina Price-Bythewood builds a sense of the epic into the relationship between Quincy and Monica, but there's always the sense that it would have been much more effective as a smaller, more intimate story. It's a very good film when

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