It can sometimes feel like if you have seen one underdog sports movie, you have seen them all. At the center of these films are characters like Alfred "Boogie" Chin (Taylor Takahashi), although maybe not Taiwanese. Boogie is a hotshot basketball player who could lead a team to the championship if only he could check his ego and play as a teammate. Sound familiar?
Writer-director Eddie Huang creates Boogie in his own image. Huang has a reputation for being unapologetic and combative, standing up for his Taiwanese immigrant roots and his artistic vision. Just like Huang, Boogie is gifted, loves hip-hop, and rejects authority figures trying to control his destiny. This includes Boogie's parents. The cultural specificity that Huang injects into this familiar structure is welcome and fresh. The relationship between Boogie and his immigrant parents feels authentic. Too bad the rest of the film doesn't feel as real.
When we meet Boogie, he has recently been recruited by an elite New York private school that needs a star player for their losing team. Boogie is hoping to use this as a way to get the exposure that will lead him to a full scholarship offer from a top-ranked university. He sees his path to the NBA and a way to take him and his family out of their tiny home. Boogie isn't a great student though and his poor grades aren't helping him to get offers. On top of that, he fights with his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) about being more a team player and less of a star. His agent (Mike Moh) is pressuring him, along with his mom, to sign a lucrative contract to play pro in China. This would kill his NBA dreams though.
Boogie's situation feels real as a lot of young athletes face similar decisions. Huang shoots the film in a way to capture the realness of the premise. He shoots on location in New York for example. The approach has a low-key nature to it that while feeling naturalistic, sacrifices a sense of momentum. The movie plods along at a pace that doesn't create enough tension to make "The Big Game" payoff. Combine this approach with several tropes of the genre and you get a lackluster film with some culturally specific dressing. When the film leans into those cultural elements, there is a unique perspective to the film.
Taylour Paige plays Boogie's girlfriend Eleanor and she brings a lot of charm and presence to the role. There is a genuinely funny and honest sex scene with her that is the film's best scene. Pop Smoke plays a rival basketball player and fans will be excited to see his acting. Pop Smoke was murdered last year.
The generic formula that provides the narrative structure works against the film's unique voice. There are several routine conflicts; Boogie fights with his parents, loses his best bud, and almost wrecks his relationship; that all get neatly resolved right before the final game. One wishes Huang had found more ways to explore Boogie's background and heritage. Boogie also is such a passive character, that it is hard to cheer him on. We rarely see him shine on the court. There are more shots of him dribbling than taking a shot. Life just happens to him, which makes for a dull experience overall.