Producers: Rachel Winter, Spencer Beighley, LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Jamal Henderson and Terence Winter   Director: Chris Robinson   Screenplay: Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor   Cast:  Wood Harris, Mookie Cook, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalie Paul, Algee Smith, Dermot Mulroney, Khalil Everage, Scoot Henderson, Kaitlyn Nichol and Avery S. Wills, Jr.   Distributor: Peacock

Grade: B

With talk swirling about LeBron James’s possible retirement from the NBA after twenty years as a league superstar, a movie about his formative experiences in high school is timely, and “Shooting Stars,” based on the 2009 book James collaborated on with Buzz Bissinger, covers them reasonably well.  Over the course of the four-year span it primarily focuses on, the movie deals with James’ growth as a player and a person, but emphasizes the support he got from friends and supportive adults, and doesn’t ignore the difficulties he faced—some of them from self-inflicted wounds.  It also doesn’t erase the rough edges (though it smooths out some of them), as a result coming off as something more than a simple goody two-shoes inspirational puff piece.  It does engage in simplification, and in some ways it can’t help but remind you of an afterschool special—one that tells a story already covered extensively in a variety of media—but while no classic, it’s still nicely done.

It begins in Akron, Ohio, in 1996, with James, whose hardworking single mom Gloria (Natalie Paul) is pleased that he’s found a sort of surrogate father figure in Dru Joyce II (Wood Harris), who coaches LeBron (played by Sir Myles), along with his own son Lil Dru (Ascen Lomack) and pals Sian Cotton (Kaden Amari Anderson) and Willie McGee (Thomas Shaw III) in basketball.  The four boys, aged nine and ten, spend their time on the court or playing video games, dreaming of careers in the NBA.

The time quickly shifts to 2000, with the boys, who’ve come to call themselves the Fab Four, about to enter high school and ready to join the varsity team together as freshmen.  The school of choice, Buchtel High, has a stellar sports program and imposing academic standards, as well as a spot as an assistant coach for Joyce.  But when the basketball coach indicates that while LeBron (now played by Mookie Cook), Sian (Khalil Everage) and Willie (Avery S. Wills, Jr.) are shoo-ins for Varsity slots, Lil Dru (Caleb McLaughlin)—who is, in fact, still small—will be relegated to Junior Varsity.

That’s not okay with him, of course, and so he persuades his buddies that they should instead enroll at St Vincent-St Mary, the Catholic school whose new coach Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) was recently fired at Central Michigan for a remark he’d made (the exact nature of which is elided here).  Lil Dru persuades an initially dismissive Dambrot that he should accept him and his three friends as Varsity prospects as a group, and also help them get scholarships.  It’s not long before he has the quartet replacing his senior players in the starting lineup, not without some complaints from parents; but those fall silent as the team goes on to win two successive state championships.  Press coverage explodes, and LeBron, the standout, becomes a national sensation.

The screenplay covers some highlights and bumps in the road along the way.  The Fab Four becomes the Fab Five with the addition of transfer student Romeo Travis (Scoot Henderson), whose initial surliness is a problem.  Coach Dambrot’s departure for the University of Akron brings some acrimony, as well as team turmoil when Joyce becomes his replacement.  LeBron has a “cute” meeting at a raucous party with Savannah (Kaitlyn Nichol), who becomes his steady girlfriend.  But there’s controversy when Gloria arranges her son to get a Hummer, and even a suspension in his senior year, when LeBron is charged with violating state athletic association rules about accepting valuable gifts (here, too, details of the incident are fudged for dramatic effect). 

But though one can quibble over details, the picture works overall.  Harris brings sincerity to Coach Dru, and Mulroney has a field day shouting out rude remarks as the irascible Dambrot.  McLaughlin brings easygoing charm to Lil Dru, and Paul a spicy vulnerability to Gloria.  Most importantly, the court action is expertly staged, and given the requisite excitement by cinematographer Karsten Gopinath and editor Jo Francis (as well as composer Mark Isham, an old hand with such material—he scored “Varsity Blues” and “42,” after all).  But it’s also convincing because Cook, while perhaps not the best actor of the bunch, is an authentic high school hoops standout, and along with others makes the court scenes credible.

“Shooting Stars” isn’t a slam dunk among sports movies, but it’s a likable retelling of the amazing high school career of LeBron James and the enduring friendships he forged during his youth.