An inspired labor of love about sports and romance in which the female lead is an athlete, too, "Love and Basketball" is one for the "why didn't anybody think of this before?" file.
For decades, the women in sports movies have to settle for being glorified cheerleaders while the men took all the glory as athletic heroes of various varieties. But writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood sets this picture in the world of college basketball where the couple in question (played by Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan) are both gifted ball players.
It's an idea whose time has definitely come, and what's more it makes for swell dramatic conflict since Quincy (Epps) has it easy as a heavily-recruited wunderkind and Monica (Lathan) is frustrated in her second-string role on the school's much-neglected women's team.
Friends since childhood, Q (for that's his cool-dude nickname) and Monica meet as 10-year-olds when her family moves in next door to his, and on day one she shows him up on the court in a driveway pickup game that sets the mood for all the smartly-composed game scenes to follow with bum-rush editing set to New Edition's toe-tapping, kid-friendly "Candy Girl."
An antagonistic friendship forms, percolating with flirtatiousness that ushers the two into high school, where a real romance sparks after their senior dance -- for which tomboy Monica has dolled herself up for the very first time and stunned Quincy speechless.
She's becomes a powerhouse player with a hot-temper that habitually nets her tons of technical fouls. He's the school's star athlete who has college reps beating down his door. Through a twist of fate, they both land as USC and their love blossoms between more of those snappy, vigorously cinematic game sequences.
Piecing together an impressive first effort, Prince-Bythewood gives "Love and Basketball" a contagious air of emotional electricity that carries through every scene, be it a stand-up-and-cheer home game accompanied by energetic hip-hop tunes (MC Lyte, Kool Moe Dee) or a quiet moment in which Epps and Lathan demonstrate their palpable chemistry.
She doesn't skimp on details, either, developing complex relationships (Monica is resentful of her mom's domesticity, Q's dad is a philandering, aging NBA player) and plumping her characters with observant touches of endearing personality (Q knows all Monica's game stats off the top of his head).
Epps and Lathan (who also co-starred in "The Wood") give strong individual performances, pulling back the curtain on their insecurities and exposing the fact that the both have a lot to learn as their relationship goes south under the stress of college sports.
Lathan's character touches are especially effective -- the fact that she doesn't know to sit with her legs together when wearing a dress to the school dance, or the way she fidgets on the bench dying to go back in after fouling out of a game.
The director missteps in several places, not showing us enough of Monica's confident moments, for instance, and allowing Quincy to become borderline unlikable when spite toward his philandering father spills over into the ebbing romance. Then there's that unnecessary and conspicuously PG-13 sex scene (Lathan holds her hands over her breasts like they're glued there) with its fluffy, cherry-popping love song and its politically correct nice guy condom cue (she doesn't even have to ask -- awww!).
But forgiving such foibles is easy in a movie with so much personality. "L&B" is smartly structured into game-metaphor "quarters" -- Q's and Monica's adolescence, high school, college and pro careers -- and only in the fourth does the movie lose some of its momentum.
The last act -- their post-college pro years take them in opposite and unexpected directions -- feels like an overlong epilogue since their romantic reunion is obviously inevitable. The pace and the pleasure downshift severely and the story just crawls toward the gimme conclusion.
There's no arguing the appeal of "Love and Basketball," though. Sooner or later, someone was bound to make a sports romance with the romantic leads on equal athletic footing, and this one greets the challenge with exuberance.