Both a meandering, fly-on-the-wall documentary and stunning cautionary tale, “Lenny Cooke” began production in the early 2000s as raw footage captured of the life and times of its titular subject.
Shot by producer Adam Shopkorn, that material followed then-teenage Lenny Cooke on and off the basketball courts of his youth.
At the time, Cooke was rated America’s top high-school basketball player, from the same generation that yielded future superstar LeBron James. Cooke is seen playing against James at one point in the film, and there is plenty of other visual evidence he had tremendous talent at the game.
But as anyone who follows sports knows, athletic ability does not automatically translate into a dream destiny. “Lenny Cooke” traces much drama surrounding Cooke’s decision to enter the National Basketball Association draft straight out of high school, bypassing college as the traditional path to professional sports.
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That choice doesn’t go well for Cooke, and as his life and career in basketball become increasingly diffuse, he almost seems to vaporize in this movie.
Enter independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie (“Daddy Longlegs”), who became official directors of “Lenny Cooke” in 2009. Picking up the narrative thread, the Safdies found Cooke living with his wife and son in rural Virginia. They film him on and around his 30th birthday,
full of humility and frustration.
The stop-and-start process of making “Lenny Cooke” over more than a decade adds to the mysterious, halting quality of Cooke’s life, revealing different stages of hope, arrogance, gratitude, desperation, resignation.
The same would be true of filming anyone’s life over many years, making Cooke a kind of everyman figure. In the film’s strangest but most powerful moment, the Safdies allow a computer-generated effect to let the grown-up Cooke do what most people can only dream of doing: literally counseling his younger self to avoid his own mistakes.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org