Sports films are usually about determination, fighting spirit and teamwork leading to great triumphs against all odds. Lenny Cooke on the other hand is a film about an individual, the stupidity of youth and greed leading to failure against all odds. It’s also a documentary directed by Ben and Joshua Safdieand executive produced by Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah. In high school, Lenny Cooke was the top rated basketball prospect in the United States. He was on par with players such as LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, who are now amongst the best and wealthiest basketballers in the world. Everyone was certain, Lenny is going to make it to the NBA and have a huge career. Ten years later, Lenny is overweight, lives in a trailer park with his family and has not had a single minute of NBA basketball. After brief stints in the Philippines, China and low-ranked US leagues, he ended his career. The film tries to find out what went wrong in what seemed to be a predestined fairy tale.
The Safdie brothers do this largely without interviews and talking-heads (except for some of Lenny’s coaches), using footage of Lenny during his final year of high school, a young, confident kid from humble backgrounds who is supported by a wealthy woman from New Jersey, juxtaposed with images of the older Cooke, who spends his life wondering what could have been. The film’s look, with low resolution images, almost like a home video, give it a certain run-down, used feeling; it looks like it has seen better days, which is very fitting with the story. Cooke, both young and old version, is also a fascinating protagonist and personality, very outspoken and honest, and the audience can’t help but to feel sorry for him, even though in many ways he only has himself to blame (the film doesn’t shy away from showing that he is lazy, slightly overconfident and trusts the wrong people). The film’s most emotional and pathetic scene involves a drunk Cooke belting out Mario’s Let Me Love You in front of his embarrassed wife, with tears in his eyes.
The only concern with Lenny Cooke is that, while you don’t have to be a basketball fan or even a sports fan to appreciate it, audiences who are not familiar with the organisation of American professional sports, particularly the so called draft, in which teams pick young players to add to their ranks, may feel a bit confused or lost at times. The 2002 NBA draft, which Cooke entered, is one of the film’s focal points and a quick explanation would in my opinion be helpful to widen its audience, particularly outside the US.