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…evokes a complicated blend of emotions.
Lenny Cooke was a sneaky film entry at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Although, MIFF is holding a ten film retrospective celebrating the Safdie Brothers’ career, the boys had to push for their little known documentary to be included. Yet, with its incredible back story and unprecedented footage, it’s easy to see why the young directors were so attached, and now the film is getting a run in Sydney via the MCA’s new weekly Film Program.
The 2013 documentary presents the life of Lenny Cooke, a high school basketball player that was top ranked in the United States leading up to the 2002 NBA draft. His roots of poverty in Brooklyn are contrasted with his suburban adolescence with his wealthy guardian in New Jersey. This juxtaposition provides a powerful foundation for the story, as the highly naive and vulnerable Cooke is faced with a number of very important and very public decisions.
Although, much of the footage is grainy, ill-framed and jumpy, the doco’s ultimate cohesiveness serves as a testament to the Safdie’s editing prowess. The project began in 2001 when New York Times writer, Harvey Araton, shot hours of video recordings of Cooke training in high school. Yet, as it was shot by a sports cinematographer, it lacked the obvious quality and intention that would allow it to translate into cinema form. The project was abandoned but eventually placed into the willing hands of the Safdies. Along with footage shot of their own and a remarkable feat of editing, the brothers harnessed the older recordings like a time-capsule and constructed an interesting story with a flowing narrative.
Production quality aside, the 2001 recordings contain rare images of professional basketball players such as Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, training in the ABCD Adidas camp as teenagers. For those who aren’t familiar with basketball, that’s like watching a young Robin Williams rehearse lines at Julliard.
The Safdie brothers have done well to present an objective insight into the American professional sport system by stripping back any myth or glamour. Their focus on the individual, unfettered by any heavy handed intervention, provides an honest look into the person behind the sportsman.
The story itself evokes a complicated blend of emotions. The narrative of misguided youth and opportunities squandered, grips the audience with a confronting sadness that eventually moves into pity. The power of this film, however, lies in its fading moments when everything is brought full circle. Cooke’s socio-economic background and malleability as a teenager are put into perspective and reveal a distressingly relatable set of mistakes made.
Admittedly, Cooke isn’t the most likeable character. Since the Safdies avoid framing him with any sense of irony or criticism, his clumsy womanising, lumbering temperament and unchecked ego can have a grating effect on the audience. What’s more, the shots look more like home-videos and the decision to let them run for a considerable length creates a disengaging effect.
Nonetheless, the Safdies have done remarkably well in resurrecting an old project, which although lacking in production value, simply needed to be seen by the world.