LeBron James (Mookie Cook) plays for St. Vincent’s basketball team. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
LOS ANGELES, June 1 (UPI) — The true story of Lebron James’ high school basketball career is sure to generate interest from movie and sports fans. Unfortunately, Shooting Stars, on Peacock Friday, never finds the narrative thread of James’ journey.
In 2000, childhood friends LeBron James (Mookie Cook), Lil Dru Joyce (Caleb McLaughlin), Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage) and Willie McGee (Avery Wills Jr.) try out for the Buchtel High School varsity basketball team.
Since Dru is too short, the coach sends him to junior varsity. So Dru finds St. Vincent High School and convinces new coach Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) to take him and his three friends so they can play together.
There are some broad strokes about how James and his friends, calling themselves the Fab Four, rise to success on the St. Vincent’s team. The freshmen are so good, Dambrot forgoes rules that say upperclassmen get more playing time because the Fab Four actually win games.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the two-hour film, based on James’ book with Buzz Bissinger, plays more like an extended highlights reel than a story. St. Vincent’s play a series of games, and the viewer only knows it’s the end of a season because one game happens to be a championship.
During sophomore year, Romeo Travis (Sterling Henderson) joins St. Vincent, and after some initial antagonism, becomes a harmonious member of the team. The players stop listening to Coach Dambrot, but still win games without his guidance.
After sophomore year, James gets a Sports Illustrated cover, so they play junior year season under that pressure. But it’s just another montage of games. James plays one game sick and it affects his performance, but there was no buildup to that.
These are just beats that may have been part of James’ timeline. Likewise, apparently Oak Hill was their rival school, but the film doesn’t mention them until they’re playing the game and Carmelo Anthony (Jeff Howard) is on the Oak Hill team.
Aside from watching the actors sink dunks, it is also hard to discern context. Characters keep saying St. Vincent’s is the greatest high school basketball team, but compared to whom? How good are other high school teams?
Very significant conflicts are introduced, only to be conveniently dismissed. Dru’s father (Wood Harris) is attacked by locals for applying to assistant coach St. Vincent, and disgruntled fans call the boys sellouts in the stands.
But that poses no problems once Mr. Joyce becomes assistant coach for the boys’ sophomore through senior years.
The film contrives the meeting between James and his future wife, Savannah (Katlyn Niccol), when he spills a drink on her at a party and quickly wins her over despite her justified anger.
In real life, they met at a football game, which would have been more believable than the bad rom-com dialogue they exchange in the film. They also kiss on their first date before James can even start the car, which doesn’t play as romantic as it may have been intended.
Only one real-life incident is properly established. When James is suspended for accepting valuable memorabilia from fans, considered bribery, Shooting Stars did show the seemingly innocuous fan give him a jersey in an earlier scene.
Director Chris Robinson sometimes uses bizarre shots to convey the athletics and the drama. Sometimes he gets right under characters’ chins with the camera.
His camera is zooming around the court, tilting in ways that do not frame the game well. Turning the camera 90 degrees sideways fails to enhance the action.
Spike Lee often employs a shot where the camera is attached to the actor, so Robinson not only does that, but then attaches the camera to the actor’s back for another angle.
The film literally spells out that St. Vincent’s earned Buchtel’s respect after their game by putting the text “Respect” on screen.
Some inoffensive stylistic flourishes include newspaper headlines in which the photo is rendered as full-motion video. During one game, the scoreboard changes the text from “VISITORS” to “LIL DRU” when he scores a series of 3-pointers.
Those two are cute touches that don’t distract from the story, but there are far more obtrusive flourishes throughout the film.
Shooting Stars does capture the friendship between James and his childhood friends. But characters are floundering in a sloppy narrative that loses track of their accomplishments.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.