Love & Basketball is one of those Criterion movies that you always love to see enter the Collection, since it is a bit more of a crowd-pleaser, if a very well-made one. It’s also the type of Criterion movie that we rarely review during these months since our fairly mainstream tastes mean we’ve probably seen something like a Love & Basketball. While I’m not sure there’s anything revolutionary about this movie, it’s impressive in that it manages to inhabit a few different genres and pretty much nails all of them. This is a romantic movie that is pretty romantic, a sports movie that’s often insightful and thrilling, and a coming-of-age movie that evokes those bittersweet emotions of finding your way in the world. You would think it would’ve immediately established director Gina Prince-Bythewood as a new reliable force in studio filmmaking, but of course, that’s never an easy path for a young woman in Hollywood.
As the movie also makes clear, it’s not easy being a young woman with an interest in basketball. The movie is separated into “quarters” much like a basketball game, with the first quarter taking place in 1981, where we see young kids Monica and Quincy playing basketball in Quincy’s family yard, as Monica’s family has recently moved in next door. Quincy is disarmed by how well she plays, while the two later have a tumultuous friendship that first manifests itself in an innocent kiss before they both figure out that they don’t really want to be friends anymore. In the second quarter, we cut to seven years later, where the two of them are in high school and have both become superstars of their school’s respective men and women’s basketball teams. Now played by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, Monica and Quincy still seem to be frenemies next door, though Monica is harboring feelings for Quincy, who has turned into a bit of a ladies’ man.
After both of their senior proms turn out to be a bit underwhelming, the two of them eventually hook up on prom night. We then cut to quarter three, where Monica and Quincy are dating while both attending USC on basketball scholarships, though their relationship has become a bit strained. Quincy is having trouble dealing with the infidelities of his dad (Dennis Haysbert), a former NBA player who seems to even in retirement not be great at resisting the extravagances of the professional athlete lifestyle. Meanwhile, Monica’s pugnacious attitude has made it hard for her to fit in on the basketball team and appease her coaches, whose demands have made it hard for Monica to be there for Quincy. This inevitably leads to the two of them breaking up, resulting in Quincy unsurprisingly cheating on Monica.
The fourth quarter takes place in 1993, where we see that Monica and Quincy are still pursuing their basketball dreams, though to different extents, since the WNBA didn’t exist at this point. This leaves Monica playing pro ball in Spain, where she seems happy to be the team’s star player, but also incredibly isolated and homesick. Quincy on the other hand, is playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, though is more of a bench player. Just when it seems as though Quincy will see more playing time, he tears his ACL, which lands him in a perpetual hospital stay and compels Monica to fly home to see him. When she gets there, she finds that Quincy is engaged (to Tyra Banks no less), which complicates the fact that she still has feelings for him. This results in one final basketball game while Quincy is in the middle of recovering, where Monica proclaims that the two of them play one-on-one for each other’s hearts.
This ending, along with a few other scenes are undeniably a little on the cheesy side, but the movie earns them. Love & Basketball has a genuine sweetness to it that is just really hard to pull off, and the chemistry between these two actors is quite palpable, possibly as a result of the fact that Lathan and Epps were dating at the time the film was shooting. It also pulls off the rare feat of being equally a great sports movie and a great romance, with really Bull Durham being the only other movie I can think of that pulls off that combo nearly as well. There’s one basketball scene where we see everything from Monica’s POV while she’s on the court while we’re hearing her thoughts beat-by-beat as she’s making each play. It’s a great combination of Prince-Bythewood’s bravura with the camera combined with the psychological aspects of what makes a great athlete.
The movie also feels more nuanced than it has any right to be, first because of the way in which it jumps forward in time to show the ways in which people’s lives overlap throughout the years. But also this manifests itself in these two characters’ families, whose arcs we also see play out, as Quincy’s parents ultimately get a divorce, which clearly shades how he handles his relationships. Also, you have Monica coming to terms with her mom (Alfre Woodard) trying to be facilitating but also not really knowing how to subtly get her daughter to “act like a lady”. It all makes for the kind of surprisingly confident debut film that it’s a little hard to imagine a big studio making nowadays (it seems that producer Spike Lee had a lot of sway in getting the film made), but one that it’s not hard to imagine putting on any old time when you’re in need of some cinematic comfort food.