Ostensibly situated as a digital paean to SoCal street sports, Ball Don’t Lie is less a movie than a sadomasochistic plot party where every conceivable contrivance of teenage woe is asphyxiated to the brink of orgasm and then abandoned to gasp for air and soothe its throbbing vitals. Fracturedly following the dismal biography of orphan Sticky (Grayson Boucher), the only white boy in Venice Beach with enough “game” to challenge the legions of indigenous African-American basketball legends, writer-director Brin Hill offers a parsimonious palmful of competently edited sports scenes interrupted with copious childhood flashbacks—all distractingly treated with rough grain filters to highlight the protagonist’s reluctance to recall the events in question.
Most of these scenes temporally shuttle us to and fro in order to depict Sticky’s turbulent youth through a revolving door of foster homes. We look on with mounting disbelief as each promising family rejects him either due to personal tragedy (the beatified single mom who instantaneously develops cancer post-adoption deserves the ripest raspberry of the bunch) or disenchantment with having adopted “damaged goods.” (Sticky’s past plays out like the exposition of Problem Child, though Michael Oliver never attempted to deflower any of his step-siblings.) And we inevitably learn the reason for the elliptical structure: a pitifully Dexter-esque buried trauma, withheld until the denouement as though the mere act of remembering will somehow redeem or exonerate Sticky’s frequent delinquency and perpetual aloofness—though he does unsheathe his ever-hoodied head long enough to befriend and casually mate with a fellow high-schooler who seems to be priming herself for a life of star athlete groupiedom).
Ball Don’t Lie could have easily transcended its clearly rote source material (a young adult novel by Matt de la Peña) to become an underwhelming if sufficient basketball flick. The most successful sequences depict Sticky’s after-hours tournaments with fellow Venice Beach street urchins, cloistered in the shrine-like shade of a private court where the best players in the city flock to cut their teeth. After the film teases us with this hallowed locale, however, the aura of camaraderie is unceremoniously defiled when one of the regulars roughly solicits Sticky for a blowjob in the men’s room (for about 30 unintentionally hilarious seconds it turns into a prison movie). Hill isn’t content to lean on every cliché he can think of, he has to unevenly disrupt all of them as well by interpolating hackneyed devices that simply don’t belong. Sticky is diagnosed with OCD early on, but his symptoms virtually disappear until a high-pressure situation demands dramatic tension. And rather than relying on some stereotypical “big game” to climax the proceedings, the third act pivots upon Sticky’s futile attempts to procure a birthday bling for his squeeze. Much like its central character, Ball Don’t Lie contumaciously refuses to play to its strengths.