The best documentaries change the way we think. Sports movies soothe us by following a formula: There are heroes and villains and obstacles to overcome, and the big game always comes down to a final shot. It’s a rare sports doc—the exemplary Hoop Dreams, for one—that succeeds in reconciling that conflict. More Than a Game (Lionsgate), the new documentary about LeBron James’ high school years, is a more typical work of sports nonfiction. When the complications of real life come up against the conventions of sports moviedom, the clichés win out.
More Than a Game does defy expectations in one sense: It’s less about LeBron the basketball hero than LeBron the friend. Kristopher Belman, then a college student, started filming LeBron’s basketball team at Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School for a class project in 2002, shortly after the Chosen One hit the cover of Sports Illustrated. The novice filmmaker focused on LeBron and his three best friends, who called themselves the Fab Four. LeBron, Willie McGee, Little Dru Joyce, and Sian Cotton had been playing together since elementary school, when they sold duct tape to raise money so they could travel to national tournaments. They stayed together for high school, picking up a fifth wheel (star forward Romeo Travis) and winning three state championships.
Belman’s camera follows the guys in school, at practice, and in the locker room, emphasizing their collective bond while taking time to zoom in on each player. These individual vignettes—particularly those that focus on Little Dru and his father, St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II, and Willie’s story of moving from squalor in Chicago to the care of a loving older brother in Akron—add genuine emotion to the expected scenes of championship-game conquest. The movie’s best on-court moment comes when the 4-foot-10 Little Dru, then a freshman, swishes seven consecutive 3-pointers during the state title game. The deadeye pipsqueak then gets hoisted into the air by the preternaturally muscular LeBron, a human trophy.