The first feature by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood puts
a nifty new spin on the old boy-meets-and-loses-and-gets back-
girl plot which has been a dramatic staple since antediluvian
times by situating her story in a basketball setting and making
a strong, vibrant female the dominant member of the duo. The
script is divided into four “quarters” (though of unequal
length). In the first we meet adolescents Monica and Quincy
(winningly played by youngsters Kyla Pratt and Glenndon
Chatman), new neighbors who find a common love of the game even
though they wind up quarreling. The tale then moves ahead to
their high school years; Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps replace
Pratt and Glenndon, with the characters now having become the
stars of their respective teams and, after some obligatory
standoffishness, becoming a romantic couple. The third quarter
follows them to the University of Southern California, where
Monica emerges as a bona fide sensation after a rough start,
while Quincy struggles to deal with a troublesome revelation
concerning his father (Dennis Haysbert), an NBA player. After
the necessary complications the plot springs ahead to 1993,
when Monica, disenchanted with her life playing for a Spanish
pro team, returns home to her family and to Quincy, who’s
sidelined with an injury and about to marry. The last act of
the story tries to work up some tension as to whether the two
leads will in fact get together again, but though the outcome
is predictable enough, it’s reached in an intriguing way.

Much of the success of “Love and Basketball” comes not merely
from the writing, which, though it occasionally slips into
melodramatic obviousness, is unusually supple and skillful, but
from the first-rate efforts of an outstanding cast. Lathan
is really impressive as a young woman with a drive to succeed
outside the “normal” expectations for her gender; she has
some fine moments with Alfre Woodard as her mother, a wife
who’s abandoned her other aspirations for the role of
housemaker–a decision the daughter can’t appreciate. Epps
is also very fine as the ill-starred Quincy; he might seem a
bit short for a hoop phenon, but he’s got charisma to burn, and
together he and Lathan exhibit a powerful romantic chemistry.
Woodard and Haysbert are, despite a few soapoperatic moments,
on the money as the more prominent of the parents; Debbie
McCall and Henry J. Lennix are also good, in less flashy
turns, as their spouses.

It’s noteworthy, too, that the court action in the picture has
the ring of authenticity about it. The energy, exhilaration
and pain of competition are strikingly caught.

There are, to be sure, many conventional elements in “Love and
Basketball.” But what’s surprising is how deftly Prince-
Bythewood tweaks them in unexpected and refreshing ways, in
the process creating some attractive if imperfect characters
who are then fleshed out by a truly impressive cast. The
result is a film which, despite its familiar storyline, proves
charming, intelligent and sensitive, and, flaws and all,
represents an auspicious debut for a promising new filmmaker:
not a slam-dunk, perhaps, but a pretty convincing win.