By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 18, 2013 at 5:22PM
New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie are known for their irreverent urban narratives "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" and "Daddy Longlegs," both of which contain a naturalistic quality that suggests they could work wonders with non-fiction. With "Lenny Cooke," they've done just that: Partly a found footage documentary about former high school basketball star Lenny Cooke, who in 2001 ranked highest in the country, the movie follows Cooke from his promising teen years through the series of disappointments that follow, constructing a beguiling American tragedy that defies genre categorization and eventually veers into magic realism even as it remains tethered to a true story.
The Safdies have stood out over the last few years for continually challenging audience expectations even while seeming to adhere to conventional storytelling traditions, and that's certainly true here: You've never seen a sports movie like this before.
Early on, it's clear that the Safdies find their subject a lot more interesting than the game surrounding him. An opening montage shows off Cooke's early skills in a series off successful court maneuvers, while a title card explains that in his teen years he ranked higher than future NBA stars Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, but the collage continues for a full two-and-a-half minutes, going beyond a demonstration of Cooke's abilities to show the barrage of hype surrounding him: interviews, autographs and victory dances define the buzz of his nascent career, establishing a startling contrast in the later scenes.
Having missed his opportunity to make the NBA draft several times over, Cooke's life spiraled downward to its current state, as he struggles to eke out a living in southern Virginia. Although hardly over 30, Cooke has already gone past his prime. A pudgy lower class family man looking back on his glory days, Cooke has been thoroughly abandoned by the system that offered him so much promise.
By implication, the movie does offer a critique of the impact of the NBA, at least in terms of the period when it drafted players out of high school, a tendency that has since been outlawed: Cooke is the living evidence of the damage caused by leading young players astray. "It was like the world was his, so he took advantage of it," his mother explains years later to a reporter who has followed Cooke over the years. "I don't think he did anything any other young kid would do."
But the movie doesn't force viewers to take her word for it: The Safdies shrewdly avoid conventional talking head structure, instead relying on a mixture of intimate vérité moments and footage shot by filmmaker Adam Shopkorn showing Cooke's initial popularity that preceded their involvement in the project, to the point where his entire journey becomes intensely familiar. We see him partying in Vegas and lazily watching the draft from home; years later, he's busy in the kitchen, prepping food his children. In the movie's tragic climax, the Safdies capture an inebriated Cooke at his thirtieth birthday party, stumbling through a painfully awkward rendition of soul music, then later tearing up.
A gentle giant whose speech is marked by his rambling, inarticulate memories and a distinctive lisp, Cooke is fascinating breed of social reject, whose symbolic dimension turns "Lenny Cooke" into an allegory for class issues irregardless of the specific forces that held him down. Even while haunted by mistakes, he seems intent on extracting wisdom from the experience. "One thing about me," he says. "I fucked up, but I'm more mature now."
It's hard to tell if he believes himself. Though at times messy, the wandering narrative retains an uncomfortably intimacy with its subject that lets his personality dominate. To a certain degree, the movie tips dangerously into invasive territory, portraying Cooke as something of a sadder case than he may realize. Yet the Safdies smartly -- and with a clever amount of invention that upends the documentary form -- allow Cooke to have the last word under curiously incredulous circumstances. As with their earlier movies, the climax pushes the naturalistic flow in a surprising direction, in this case departing from reality altogether.
Despite the odd nature of the project, Cooke fits nicely within the stable of characters populating the directors' work. The Safdies' narrative features have revolved around neurotic, self-interested loners, like the restless kleptomaniac in "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" and the sloppy father figure in "Daddy Longlegs." Unlike them, Cooke once had a legitimate reason to believe in his abilities; the movie leaves open-ended the question of whether the missed opportunities destroyed him or set him straight.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? World premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, the movie stands a good shot at gathering press for returning a once-notable subject to the spotlight, and seems well-positioned to gain traction in ancillary markets due to its hook in the sports world. However, its theatrical prospects are reliant on whether audiences and critics are willing to jive with its off-kilter structure.