He may be just past 30, but Lenny Cooke’s best days are likely behind him, an especially sad fate considering his once boundless potential. At one point America’s most promising basketball prospect, the naturally gifted Cooke frittered away this status via an unfortunate combination of bad luck and bad decisions, dragging his feet at the end of his high school career, then declaring draft eligibility at a time when his personal stock was at its lowest. He wasn’t picked, and, turning down the opportunity to regroup by playing college ball, he instead embarked upon an ill-fated semi-pro career, which ended after a series of injuries in his mid 20s. Retired and largely forgotten, Cooke now exists, at least in the context of this eponymous documentary, as a living cautionary tale, a condition directors Josh and Benny Safdie inflate and delicately exploit in their search for truly tragic transcendence.
It’s Cooke’s wasted potential that likely attracted the Safdie brothers, a directing duo who might otherwise seem like strange bedfellows for this type of project. Their first two features were frivolous, unfocused doodles, in which they evinced an interest in desperately charming, brilliant underachievers who, through a mixture of immaturity and compulsive behavior, push themselves into corners. That affection for the defeated is apparent in their first documentary, which piggybacks on a wealth of old material recorded by producer Adam Shopkorn, who followed Cooke for a prospective ESPN documentary at the end of his high school career.
A little too concerned with stoking Cooke’s mythic properties, the filmmakers never fully get their hands around his story, with its complicated blend of socioeconomic issues, media-fed expectations, and personal demons, but their portrait of Lenny is suitably respectful of the many factors at play here. This means that, while the Safdies are drawn to the man’s Icarian characteristics, they never push him into any predefined state; neither a hero nor a victim, he’s presented instead as the casualty of a series of factors which left him ill-suited to handle the pressures foisted upon him.
The directors are equally respectful of Shopkorn’s indispensable footage, which contains not only key moments of Lenny sabotaging his future, but also home-movie footage of current NBA titans as goofy teenagers, from Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire to a 16-year-old LeBron James, still growing into his frightening machine of a body. Rather than overload this footage with talking-head hosannas or voiceover narration, the directors wisely let it breathe, deferring to montage techniques to shape the story. There’s real skill shown in this regard, particularly in two compilations of on-court footage that serve to quickly sum up broad stretches of the narrative, showing more storytelling capability than anything in the filmmakers’ previous features.
The same can’t be said for the modern-day footage, which is presented in disappointingly messy fashion. Key scenes, such as an interview with Cooke’s fiancée and an argument between the man and some old friends, are ruined by an almost destructive inability to frame a shot. In the former, the zoomed-in camera crawls all over the woman’s face; in the latter, it stands stock-still in the middle of the dispute, seemingly shot by someone holding an iPhone at chest level. These bits of ineptitude contribute to an altogether ungraceful third act; you know a documentary has lost its way when it’s employing distracting special effects. Still, while Lenny Cooke never reaches the Hoop Dreams level of operatic tragedy to which it aspires, and while it verges on exploitation of the gentle giant at its core, it’s also an effective bit of human drama, competently, and sometimes movingly, telling a story that deserves to be told.