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‘Shooting Stars’ Review: Peacock’s Lovingly Sanitized LeBron James Origin Story



Practically since his career began, LeBron James has been not merely a great basketball player but a media industry generating a seemingly endless array of products.

The latest example is this new Peacock original film based on his 2009 memoir co-written with Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights), recounting the story of his early years and friendship with his high school teammates known as the “Fab Four,” later expanded to become the “Fab Five.” The story was already told in the 2008 documentary More than a Gamebut that won’t stop the GOAT’s fans from wanting to see this lovingly rendered adaptation that covers all the early career highlights, albeit sometimes in sanitized form.

Shooting Stars

The Bottom Line

Mostly hits its shots.

Release date: Friday, June 2
Cast: Wood Harris, Marquis “Mookie” Cook, Caleb McClaughlin, Natalie Paul, Algee Smith, Dermot Mulroney, Khalil Everage, Sterling “Scott” Henderson, Katlyn Nichol, Avery S. Wills, Jr.
Director: Chris Robinson
Screenwriters: Frank E. Flowers Tony Rettenmaier, Joel Taylor

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 56 minutes

The story begins with James (Marquis “Mookie” Cook, a top-ranked amateur basketball player making an impressive screen debut) playing in a youth league in Akron, Ohio, along with his three best friends: Lil Dru (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), Willie McGee (Avery S. Wills, Jr.) and Sian Cottin (Khalil Everage, Cobra Kai). The coach of the team called the “Shooting Stars” is Lil Dru’s father, Dru Joyce (Wood Harris, Creed), who exerted a strong influence on the group.

The four friends made a pact to attend high school together, but Lil Dru’s diminutive stature endangered the chances that they would all be able to play for the same team. They made the controversial decision not to attend the local public high school but rather St. Vincent-St. Mary, a private Catholic school with a predominantly white student population. They laughingly referred to themselves as the “Black Irish,” but their decision did not go over well with everyone in the community.

“How does it feel to be pimpin’ for St. Vincent?” someone sneers, while another local fan labels the group as “sellouts.” Nevertheless, the friends, joined by former rival and new teammate Romeo Travis (Sterling “Scoot” Henderson), thrive in their new environment, coached by Keith Dambrot, a former university basketball coach who was fired for using a racial slur and has issues of his own adjusting to his lower status. As played by Dermot Mulroney in a standout performance, the character proves one of the film’s most interesting, displaying hard-edged realism and self-mocking humor as well as a fierce dedication to his players.

The film dutifully covers all the narrative bases in its subject’s younger years, including meeting his girlfriend and future wife Savannah (Katlyn Nichol); his meteoric rise to fame that included being on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school; and such controversies as being suspended from the team after having accepted a vintage jersey from a rabid fan who begs to have his picture taken with him. At least, that’s how the film, which includes James among its producers, presents it. In reality, he received two jerseys from a clothing store in return for posing for pictures, a violation of the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s rules. Considering that the episode did not exactly cost him his future career, the portrayal of the incident seems curious.

The screenplay co-written by Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Joel Taylor leans heavily towards the sort of interpersonal dynamics that have driven sports films since Hollywood began making them. Lil Dru chafes at the disrespect engendered by his short stature, proving his prowess by sinking reckless outside shots. LeBron gets into a fight with his girlfriend, who’s annoyed by the constant interruptions from his fans (“Are you done being famous now?” she asks at one point) and doesn’t take his comment that she’s “hit the lottery” with their relationship at all well. Not all of these incidents prove as compelling as the filmmakers seem to think they are, and the nearly two-hour running time drags more often than not.

Fortunately, director Chris Robinson provides ample cinematic distraction, collaborating with director of photography Karsten Gonipath in shooting the many basketball sequences in dynamic fashion, frequently altering the visual style to keep things interesting. It doesn’t hurt that several of the young lead actors have the sort of actual b-ball experience to make their characters’ exploits on the court seem credible. There are times, though, when Robinson, who has extensive experience shooting music videos, gets overly cutesy; when two players shake hands on the court, an onscreen graphic informs us this means “Respect.”

The film proves most effective in its moving depiction of the strong bond among its young central characters and the positive influence of the various adults in their lives, such as James’ determined single mother Gloria (Natalie Paul) and their coaches, including Dambrot, who doesn’t pass up the opportunity to leave the boys when offered a university position. It’s a reminder that Shooting Stars is (mostly) a true story rather than the sort of Hollywood hokum that would demand that he sacrifice his own self-interest for the good of the boys.

Other elements providing extra layers of authenticity are the extensive use of the actual Ohio locations that figured prominently in the story and the graphics during the closing credits informing us about the current status of the real-life characters — the one about James being particularly amusing.

Full credits

Production companies: The Springhill Company, Tangerine Pictures, Cold Front Productions, Universal Pictures
Distributor: Peacock
Cast: Wood Harris, Marquis “Mookie” Cook, Caleb McClaughlin, Natalie Paul, Algee Smith, Dermot Mulroney, Khalil Everage, Sterling “Scott” Henderson, Katlyn Nichol, Avery S. Wills, Jr.
Director: Chris Robinson
Screenwriters: Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier, Joel Taylor
Producers: Rachel Winter, Spencer Beighley, LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Jamal Henderson, Terence Winter
Executive producer: Gretel Twombly
Director of photography: Karsten Gopinath
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Editor: Jo Francis
Composer: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Casting: Kim Taylor-Coleman

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 56 minutes

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