Well, “Shooting Stars” nailed the casting of the LeBron James role.
It’s not as if Marquis “Mookie” Cook is a dead ringer for the James many of us met when the high school basketball phenom was dubbed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated when the magazine put him on its cover. However, when Cook — a high-flying prep hoopster himself, making his screen debut in the movie debuting this week on Peacock — flashes a smile, you can convince yourself you’re watching a teen version of the future four-time NBA champion, four-time winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award and the league’s all-time leading scorer.
That isn’t reason enough to make time for “Shooting Stars,” based on the 2009 book of the same name by current Los Angeles Lakers star James and “Friday Night Lights” author and journalist Buzz Bissinger. However, even as it struggles to maintain a rhythm with its narrative, the film is engaging enough to recommend, thanks largely to Cook and his on-screen teammates.
Already the subject the 2008 documentary “More Than a Game,” James and four of his teammates from Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary Catholic High School — Dru Joyce III (Caleb McLaughlin of “Stranger Things), Willie McGee (Avery S. Wills Jr., “Swagger”), Sian Cotton (Khalil Everage, “Cobra Kai”) and Romeo Travis (newcomer Sterling “Scoot” Henderson) — are front and center again in this dramatization.
We meet the self-proclaimed “Fab Four” of LeBron, Lil Dru, Willie and Sian (portrayed by younger actors) as they play together on a youth team, the Shooting Stars, where they are coached by Dru’s father, Dru Joyce II (Wood Harris of the “Creed” franchise). He has instilled in them a refrain: “It isn’t how you start the game. It’s how you finish.”
A few years later, the talented foursome is preparing to attend what was then John R. Buchtel High School, a public school in Akron. However, when the Buchtel coach makes it clear that the undersized Dru would begin playing with the junior-varsity squad, the spunky young man convinces the new coach at SVSM, the likewise fiery Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney, “August: Osage County”), to let them try out for the varsity if they attend that school instead.
Oh, and those tryouts? Brutal.
Directed by Chris Robinson, working from a script by Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor, “Shooting Stars” proceeds to take us through the frequent highs and occasional lows from the amateur portion of James’ career.
We see former college coach Dambrot, unquestionably benefiting from the Fab Four’s play, take his shot to get back to that level by accepting the head coach position at the nearby University of Akron, with the elder Joyce taking over the SVSM squad.
We see Romeo, a kid with a troubled past, transfer to SVSM and, after a friction-filled phase, become the fifth member of the crew.
Of course, we also see LeBron’s mother, Gloria James (a convincing Natalie Paul of “Crown Heights”), give her son that unforgettable GMC Hummer, stating the bank knew they’d be able to pay off the loan for it in a few years.
It’s a bit of a bummer that Robinson (“Beats,” “Grown-ish”), Flowers (“Metro Manila”), Rettenmaier (“Space Jam: A New Legacy”) and Taylor (“Creed II”) struggle to make more than bit players of Willie, Sian and Romeo. That said, it’s inevitable that the story would become LeBron-centric as it progressed.
Drama is mined from the big head the future Cleveland Cavaliers star gets, understandably, as the spotlight on him grows ever larger. His teammates grow frustrated by him, and his increasingly annoyed future wife, Savannah (Katlyn Nichol, “Black-Ish”) works to keep him in check.
Robinson does manage to keep the basketball scenes, while never spectacular, fresh. Working with his long-time director of photography, Karsten “Crash” Gopinath, he shoots each of the 15 or so games included in the movie in a different way. That’s more than what you might expect from a straight-to-streaming affair.
And even though you can see why this Universal Pictures production bypassed theaters — it looks only so expensive as it isn’t exactly peppered with big-named actors — it does occasionally rock the rim and offers a relatively inspirational story about a group of boys who came from an unremarkable, if also beloved, place.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong language, some suggestive references and teen drinking)
Running time: 1:56
How to watch: Peacock