More Than a Game tells one of those “you can’t make this stuff up” true stories for which documentarians live. Director Kristopher Belman chronicles seven years in the lives of five players on an Akron, Ohio high school basketball team, from their early middle-school games to the national high school championship. That one of the players happened to be current NBA superstar LeBron James adds but another level of interest to a real-life story that is not only populated by memorable personalities and inspiring anecdotes, but which neatly conforms to the classic three-act story structure of unexpected success followed by hubristic downfall followed by triumphant return.
Perhaps a little too neatly. Though Belman leaves room to tenderly explore the backgrounds of each of his subjects and (most movingly) the affectionate camaraderie that formed between the teammates who dub themselves the “Fab Five,” there’s something at once emotionally satisfying and a little slick about More than a Game‘s framing of the team’s triumphs and setbacks. The film flirts with travelling down some of the more twisty paths laid out by the team’s story—such as the relationship between the film’s African-American subjects and the predominantly white school for which they played—but remains mostly content to revel in misty-eyed musings on teamwork, familial struggle, and the bonds of brotherhood forged on and off the court. Belman’s ESPN-ish visuals only add to the sense that we’re watching a carefully produced version of a perhaps messier and more sprawling tale, regardless of its made-for-the-movies story arc.
Then again, the film never claims to be an interrogation or an indictment. It’s primarily a love letter to the enduring power of sports as a form of social adhesive and a means of individual achievement, and Belman’s film makes up in good will what it lacks in exploratory rigor. You don’t have to be a basketball die-hard to see how James became a celebrity; besides being a gifted athlete, his twinkly-eyed humor and emotional candor on screen makes him the film’s charismatic center. To their credit, Belman and co-screenwriter Brad Hogan keeps More Than a Game an ensemble piece throughout while remaining aware of James’s undeniable presence. Indeed, the film’s wittiest moment comes at its conclusion, when the traditional “where are they now” on-screen text explains James’s present career with hilarious modesty.
The heart of the film, however, is Dru Joyce II. Initially an assistant coach, Joyce takes over after original head coach Keith Dambrot leaves the team for a college job. Joyce has a perennially worried countenance and eyes that flash with kindness and melancholy, and his thoughts on the joys and costs of coaching—particularly how it often adversely affected his relationship with his son, Dru Joyce III, a member of the Fab Five—are among the film’s most poignant moments. Full of gratitude but with a silent undertow of regret, his ruminations suggest the more expansive film that perhaps lay just beyond More Than a Game‘s well-constructed if limiting parameters.