You can eat the sausage, but who really wants to see how it’s made?
The state of high school hoops in America — blue chip prospects ID’d as tweens, recruited to “high school” superteams that aren’t high schools at all, prepped for colleges that sell the myth of “student athlete,” all aimed at the slim chance of NBA millions — gets a dramatically satisfying airing in “Amateur,” the debut feature of Ryan Koo, now on Netflix.
“Amateur” shines a light on a seriously dysfunctional system. It’s a sell-out updating of “Hoop Dreams” for the viral video era, a sharp-edges-rubbed-off film that holds interest even as it loses some of its testy edge drifting towards a wish fulfillment fantasy conclusion.
Michael Rainey Jr. of TV’s “Power” has just enough game to be a convincing point guard whose promise, at 14, is such that the sharks are circling.
That would be the “recruiters” who follow middle school and high school teams and arrange the deals that get the most promising into prep school pipelines to the NCAA “power conference” teams, and potentially the NBA.
Terron (Rainey) is a dominant talent on a middling high school team, earning the attention of “Liberty Prep,” a basketball factory masquerading as high end academia for “trust fund babies.” Josh Charles brings a nurturing oiliness to Coach Gaines, a smooth-talking cynic who sells the big dream to a 14 year-old — NBA millions.
But Terron is a kid with problems. His father (Brian White, terrific) is a former jock wearing the symptoms of too many concussions — vanishing memory, blackouts, temper tantrums. And Terron has a learning disability, “dyscalculia,” numbers blindness.
Algebra is a mystery to him, but he’s smart enough to figure out work-arounds. And since he can’t even make out the scoreboard or clock in the gym, his coaches count down the shot clock to make him effective.
A clever effect — letting us see the garbled shot clock that only Terron sees.
Coach Gaines cons the kid’s mother (Sharon Leal, earthy and engaging), a teacher who values academics and pushes the college degree in case this sports thing doesn’t work out. And Terron joins glamorous Liberty Prep.
Only it’s not glamorous. The players aren’t really at the prestigious school they’re supposed to be attending. They’re crammed into a rundown house, given loaner bicycles to get to school and overwhelmed with workouts that eat up whatever academic time they’re supposed to put in.
The players who haze the “daycare team” recruit are a blend of blue chips, foreigners (some much older than they say) and others who either ignore the kid, or tip him off that classes and grades? They’re all taken care of.
“We too big too fail,” Eastern European Petrus (Stefan Frank) jokes.
As the kid starts to fit in, as such kids inevitably do in such movies, going all the way back to “One on One,” he starts to figure out the war of competing agendas at play here. His father has one, the coach has one, and each player has his own as well.
“We don’t play for coach, we don’t play for colleges, we don’t even play for the U.S.” a teammate (Ashlee Brian) clues him in. “We play for the (sporting goods) brands.”
Charles is quite adept at playing this coach with just enough compassion and understanding to charm the kid, just enough edge to let us question his agenda and true motives. He’s a talented tactician and mentor, but an outsider, a Jim Boeheim or Rick Pitino who never appeared to be clean enough to make the jump to the big time.
Forget the textbooks, “I want you to bury your nose in this playbook, like it’s a pillow made out of Rihanna’s” breasts,” Coach purrs.
But Koo, in reaching for an overall indictment of the system and possible solutions — think about how the rest of the world has no NCAA to appease, where athletes can sell their talents — robs his movie of a real villain in the process.
That breaks the formula, but also makes for a less satisfying viewing experience. Drama requires more conflict than “Amateur” delivers. “Everybody Wins” is not the way the world works.
In not letting the salty but engaging Charles fill that function, and lacking any version of the turn-a-blind-eye to its own corruption NCAA to park in that role, “Amateur” goes all squishy in the third act, just when the stakes should go up and the cost of failure should be its bitterest.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Michael Rainey Jr., Josh Charles, Sharon Leal, Brian White
Credits: Written and directed by Ryan Koo. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:36