Producers: Rishi Rajani, Lena Waithe and Brad Weston   Director: Jingi Shao   Screenplay: Jingi Shao   Cast: Bloom Li, Dexter Darden, Ben Wang, Zoe Renee, Chase Liefeld, Mardy Ma, Jay Williams, Kimberley Anne Martin, Kendrick Perkins, Eric Anthony Lopez and Nile Bullock Distributor: Disney+

Grade: B

Here’s a high school sports movie that throws a few curves, even if the sport is basketball.  At first it seems poised to be a replay of those old teen tales about bets—the fellow who wagers he can get a pretty girl for a prom date, for example—except in this case the issue on the line is whether a short kid can master the slam dunk (winning the pretty girl too, of course).  But after an hour in which the debut feature from writer-director Jingi Shao appears to be following the standard playbook—indeed reaches its natural climax—it takes a sharp turn into territory that raises some serious issues, and handles them intelligently even as it sprints to an upbeat conclusion with what amounts to the old freeze-frame shot.  “Chang Can Dunk” tweaks formula to surprisingly satisfying effect.

Bloom Li brings a soulful affability to Chang, or Xiao Ming to his single mom Chen (Mardy Ma), a hardworking nurse separated from his dad.  He’s beginning his sophomore year at Cresthill High in Connecticut, determined, as he tells his buddy Bo (Ben Wang), to become the newly popular Chang 2.0.  And luck seems to be with him when he meets Kristy (Zoe Renee), a pretty transfer student who’s joining him on the drumming contingent of the school’s marching band.  They’re hitting it off until Matt (Chase Liefeld), the star of the Cresthill basketball team, interrupts.  An erstwhile childhood friend of Chang’s, he shows an interest in Kristy, too.

Later, at a post-game party, Chang is bullied by Matt and his sidekicks, and decides to issue the public challenge to his one-time buddy, putting his valuable Pokémon card up against Matt’s cherished Kobe Bryant jersey to prove that though he’s only 5’8”, he’ll be able to dunk the ball by season’s end.  That puts him into a training regimen with Deandre (Dexter Darden, terrific), a former pro player now demonstrating his skills online while working at a Verizon store—all recorded by movie buff Bo (in a style specified by Deandre as Michael Bay rather than Martin Scorsese) and posted online, where the clips become a viral sensation.  It all culminates in the moment Chang goes for the basket in the school gym before an expectant crowd, and we see the underdog triumph. 

But that climactic scene comes only an hour into the movie, and much more is to follow.  Some of it is fairly predictable, like the instant celebrity that brings Chang into the ESPN studio with Kimberley Anne Martin and Kendrick Perkins, and to a gala party where he consorts with stars like Jay Williams.  His changed attitude soon causes friction with his friends Bo, Kristy and Deandre.  But an even sharper turn is to come.

Precisely what won’t be revealed here; suffice it to say that it takes “Chang Can Dunk” onto much more dramatic turf—Chang 3.0, as it were—in which his relationship with Chen plays a prominent role.  The shift requires viewers to consider issues of responsibility for one’s actions that are no longer matters of a lighthearted frolic.  And it compels Li to deepen his performance substantially; happily he proves up to the task, and Ma complements him well in some quite powerful mother-son scenes.

That’s not to say that the film suddenly becomes all darkness and gloom; Shao proves adept in juggling different moods, and by the end the movie has reasserted an equilibrium between drama and comedy, ending with a triumph of another sort.  But it winds up as a more complicated, layered piece than it seemed at the start.  Other Disney family pictures have attempted balancing acts like this, but rarely have they succeeded as well. 

“Chang” is a technically modest movie, but thanks to production designer Maite Perez-Nievas, costumer Joshua J. Marsh and cinematographer Ross Riege, it looks fine (with actual Connecticut locations), and Brad Turner edits with a sure hand; even the online insertions aren’t allowed to get oppressive. Nathan Matthew David’s score hits the mark, and the plethora of pop songs selected to accompany the action add jolts of energy as needed, even if the occasional swatches of classical music (Mozart’s “Dies Irae”?) seem ill-placed.                            

“Chang Can Dunk” shoots and scores.