First-time director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes an impressive debut in the big leagues scoring a slam dunk with "Love and Basketball." Produced by Spike Lee and Sam Kitt, the film is neatly divided into four quarters, as it follows the love and basketball involvements in the lives of Monica Wright (played by Kyla Pratt as the young girl and then Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman and Omar Epps).
The first quarter finds Monica's family moving to an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood, where the 11-year-old is mistaken for a boy and invited to shoot hoops with Quincy and his pals. When it's discovered that she's really a girl, Quincy decides that they should go steady, but she's quickly turned off by his cockiness.
In the second quarter, Monica and Quincy emerge as talented high-school athletes who have developed a friendship and support system for each other. It's quickly apparent, though, that underlying romantic feelings are beginning to surface. The film expertly walks the fine line between developing the evolution of their repressed feelings, as well as exploring the characters as interesting and unique individuals.
The film then progresses to USC, where the college sweethearts are basketball standouts. At this juncture, Quincy is forced to confront the adulterous ways of his former basketball-professional father (Dennis Haysbert), and Monica finds her love of the game causing interference in her relationship. As Monica's career takes off, sending her away to Spain to play pro ball, she calls it quits with Quincy. His career begins to slide, leading to a final emotional confrontation between the pair. While not thoroughly believable, it's what the audience will expect and deserves in this Cinderella story.
Director/screenwriter Prince-Bythewood, who ran competitive track while attending film school at UCLA, has elicited superb performances from Lathan and Epps. As the tomboyish athlete who will not follow the same subservient path as her mother (Alfre Woodard), Lathan seethes with fierce determination but is equally adept at offering up her softer side. Epps oozes charisma and vulnerability. When reality comes crashing down, he convincingly projects Quincy's pain and anguish.
Epps and Lathan's create a fiery chemistry together, and the imaginative sex scenes, such as one that ensues after a game of strip one-on-one, are erotically charged. But the script is not without flaws. Somer peripheral relationships, such as Monica's distant one with her mother, are addressed perfunctorily, without proper build-up.
Otherwise, "Love and Basketball" is so rich in production values that it's hard to believe that this big-time score comes from a rookie director.