The best documentaries change the way we think. Sports movies soothe us by following a formula: There are heroes and villains and obstacles to overcome, and the big game always comes down to a final shot. It's a rare sports doc—the exemplary Hoop Dreams, for one—that succeeds in reconciling that conflict. More Than a Game (Lionsgate), the new documentary about LeBron James' high school years, is a more typical work of sports nonfiction. When the complications of real life come up against the conventions of sports moviedom, the clichés win out.
More Than a Game does defy expectations in one sense: It's less about LeBron the basketball hero than LeBron the friend. Kristopher Belman, then a college student, started filming LeBron's basketball team at Akron, Ohio's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School for a class project in 2002, shortly after the Chosen One hit the cover of Sports Illustrated. The novice filmmaker focused on LeBron and his three best friends, who called themselves the Fab Four. LeBron, Willie McGee, Little Dru Joyce, and Sian Cotton had been playing together since elementary school, when they sold duct tape to raise money so they could travel to national tournaments. They stayed together for high school, picking up a fifth wheel (star forward Romeo Travis) and winning three state championships.
Belman's camera follows the guys in school, at practice, and in the locker room, emphasizing their collective bond while taking time to zoom in on each player. These individual vignettes—particularly those that focus on Little Dru and his father, St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II, and Willie's story of moving from squalor in Chicago to the care of a loving older brother in Akron—add genuine emotion to the expected scenes of championship-game conquest. The movie's best on-court moment comes when the 4-foot-10 Little Dru, then a freshman, swishes seven consecutive 3-pointers during the state title game. The deadeye pipsqueak then gets hoisted into the air by the preternaturally muscular LeBron, a human trophy.
While More Than a Game succeeds in depicting the friends' deep mutual affection, the edges of the LeBron James story are too often smoothed to a dull, inspirational point. By LeBron's junior year, Belman's footage shows us, he had taken to preening—dancing on the court, adopting a bodybuilder's pose after performing his spectacular feats. These outbursts were a sign, we're told, of the coach-ignoring, individualistic attitude that submarined St. Vincent-St. Mary's season, culminating in a stunning loss in the state finals. The following year, LeBron and the LeBronnaires got religion, played as a team, and won a national high school championship. Team wins, team gets cocky, team loses, team gets humble, team wins again—it's a sports movie plot that's been around since that ancient Greek story about Icarus flying too close to the rim.
The problem with making a sports documentary with a sports-fiction plot is that reality can get in the way. During his senior year, LeBron is still strutting around the court—and why shouldn't he be? The guy's amazing—not exactly chastened by his brush with loserdom. There's also the slightly messy fact that there's no such thing as a national high school championship. As there's no high school tournament to compare to college basketball's March Madness, the best prep teams compete with one another entirely on paper—the champion, so much as there is one, is anointed by the sports page of USA Today. In the quest to land on the top of this list, the St. Vincent-St. Mary team ditches its local schedule and travels to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and North Carolina to take on the best teams in the country. While the national and local press get deserving criticism for building up LeBron into a teenage Goliath only to tear him down when he proves he's just a teenager, More Than a Game doesn't question the decision-making of St. Vincent-St. Mary's administrators and coaches or even stop to ponder it. No matter if winning a national title is a worthy goal—LeBron and Co. achieved their dream, and that's worth celebrating.
Considering that LeBron got an executive producer credit on More Than a Game, the movie's lack of a critical eye shouldn't be a surprise. More Than a Game and the book Shooting Stars—an autobiographical collaboration between James and Buzz Bissinger that tells the exact same story—were both carefully crafted to burnish LeBron James' reputation. The elisions make for a simpler, more kid-friendly tale, one that's inspirational and fun to watch but fundamentally less interested in understanding its subject than in promoting him. If there's any doubt that this movie exists in large part because it serves the commercial interests of a man who aspires to be a "global icon," it gets erased when the basketball star quaffs a Powerade during his on-camera interview.
There are a few moments when Belman teases us with the outlines of a more complicated story. LeBron says that the Fab Four's decision to go to a predominately white Catholic school drew heavy criticism from Akron's black community; that's the last we hear of any racial strife. And amid all the talk of the Fab Four's long-held "national championship" dreams, the movie withholds the fact that LeBron wanted to go to the NBA after his junior year in high school. (He ultimately decided not to challenge the league's age limit.) If LeBron had gone pro, would he have been abandoning his best friends—or is that just the way things happen in real life sometimes?