‘Boogie’: The well-intentioned attempts don’t run up the cinematic scoreboard

“Boogie” – “Maybe we should start at the beginning so you can get some context.” – Melvin (Mike Moh)

During the second act of writer/director Eddie Huang’s basketball film, Melvin (Moh), an aggressive sport agent, formulates a plan for Alfred ‘Boogie’ Chin (Taylor Takahashi) and utters the aforementioned statement, but this declaration serves this movie’s opening scene too.

Huang’s picture starts – in 2001 – inside a modest Queens, N.Y. fortune teller’s parlor, and a young couple – clearly on edge – argue, bicker, and ponder their relationship and future.  Their baby’s due in several months, but having a child doesn’t appear as an obvious solution to happiness.  Did this dysfunctional, unmanageable match meet on “The Bachelor”?  No, that series began a year later in 2002.  Well, no matter how this Taiwanese-American couple connected, a positive, loving relationship isn’t in the cards, including the Tarot ones.

During the relationship’s infancy (pardon the pun), we realize that The Chins are an unhappy family, and the film immediately fast-forwards to 2019.  Before you can say, “I want out of this marriage,” eighteen years fly by, and their discontent only grew.  They grapple with paying bills, and the patriarch – who we only know as Mr. Chin (Perry Yung) – struggles to stay out of prison, as assault has become his habitual screwup of choice.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Chin (Pamelyn Chee) regrets her life-decision as a young pregnant woman so many years ago and frequently lashes out during moments of household war…and peace.

It’s easy to read how this environment would fall on a child, and the movie’s combustible, purposely-shaky opening is all the context that one would need.

When we meet Boogie, the film’s title character, he’s about as likable as asphalt-flavored chewing gum.

Boogie is Alfred’s nickname, or as this smart-alecky student announces to his AP-English teacher (Steve Coulter) and class, it’s his stripper name.  He’s not exactly winning over hearts and minds.  That’s not precisely correct because Boogie catches his classmate Eleanor’s (Taylour Paige) eye, and he courts her through vulgar overtures at the school weight room.  Well, despite his juvenile decorum, this high school senior (and star basketball transfer student to City Prep) eventually connects with Eleanor, a straight-arrow, mature young lady, and they become a supportive pair.

Huang’s coming-of-age film juggles a pair of themes, basketball and lofty parental-expectations, and they both relate to Alfred’s heritage.  From Boogie’s perspective, Asian basketball players are as uncommon as screaming preteens at a John Tesh concert, so his whole life, he’s faced an invisible – but all-too-real – wall, one 288 feet long that surrounds a 94-foot by 50-foot court.  His folks have pushed him over this barrier for years, but cultural forces of New York City’s playgrounds and organized leagues – as well as his insecurities – have shoved him back.

As his dad explains – whether Boogie likes it or not –  “We’re in the basketball business.”

“Boogie” is a basketball movie, or at least partially, but there’s not enough on-screen time on the court for fans.  Alfred runs a few plays, makes a steal, drives to the hoop a couple of times, but the limited action is captured within a tight frame (at least until the third act), and the drama around wins and losses is non-existent.  Instead, Boogie’s caustic, combative tension with his head coach – who, by the way, seems perfectly reasonable – becomes a prominent and unneeded source of stress.  Coach Hawkins (Domenick Lombardozzi) is no Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the twisted, sadistic music teacher from “Whiplash” (2014).

Boogie pushes buttons and is a troubled hero, but then again, he carries a chip the size of Madison Square Garden on his shoulders.

With more locker room-squabble moments than fast breaks, the picture – instead – approaches smaller moments in the big city.  Alfred and Eleanor’s relationship feels genuine and produces the very best scenes in the film.  They explore and embrace each other’s differing backgrounds, and although Boogie knows zone defense, the pick and roll, and the cross-over dribble, Eleanor could be his first serious relationship.  She gladly and thankfully offers positive vibes and order into Boogie’s 18 years of chaos.  Paige is a bright star in Boogie’s life as well as the film’s.  She grabs his hand – as well as ours – and attempts to chaperone us to the end credits single-handily.

Boogie finally confronts his main rival, Monk (Pop Smoke), on the court, but the tangled triad of his parents, hoops, and culture govern more weight.  There’s an awful lot to unpack within a thrifty runtime of just 89 minutes, and although “Boogie” offers thoughtful takeaways in a few weeks of a distressed, semi-wandering teen’s life, these well-intentioned attempts don’t run up the cinematic scoreboard.

⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Focus Features; Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers

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