Film review: Hoop Dreams

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 17 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

"Hoop Dreams" follows two inner-city Chicago youths during their high school years, boys who display a natural talent for basketball and who are encouraged to pursue the American Dream, which in this case means aiming for an NBA contract. (OK, maybe it's the Nike Dream.)

As the film begins, it seems obvious which of the two will most successfully chase that dream — but by the end, the characters seem to have switched places, after their lives have taken a variety of unexpected twists and turns in this nearly three-hour epic journey.

Meanwhile, the boys themselves display remarkable character, fortitude and dedication, despite the pressures, family problems and economic difficulties that bear down on them.

This is the plotting and character development of great drama, the kind that makes the best movies so compelling and believable. Except that in this case, it wasn't scripted. "Hoop Dreams" is a documentary, and these kids — along with their families and friends — are real. And filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, who dedicated seven years to this project, have come up with a film that is so rich, so involving, so compelling . . . that superlatives seem inadequate.

Told in a chronological, straight-forward manner, the film has only occasional narrative interruptions, necessary to clarify certain moments.

"Hoop Dreams" begins as young Arthur Agee is spotted by a "street scout" who is on the lookout for talented ball players. He sees Arthur playing street ball and recommends him to St. Joseph High School, famed alma mater of Isiah Thomas, superstar player for the Detroit Pistons — and Arthur's longtime personal hero.

But in this largely white Catholic school, Arthur begins to falter. He confesses that he is intimidated at being surrounded by white people, he isn't used to the kind of pressure his coach exerts and his grades, which were low to begin with, do not improve. As a result, his self-confidence begins to wane.

There are problems at home, also. His parents split up as his father sinks into a crack cocaine habit and eventually goes to prison (he later gets himself straight and, for a time, is reunited with the family). Meanwhile, Arthur's mother, suffering from back problems, struggles to keep the family alive, while training to become a nurse's assistant. (One of the film's most emotional moments comes when she achieves that goal.)

But before completing his freshman year at St. Joseph's, Arthur is kicked out of school, leaving his family $1,500 in debt for tuition. (Mrs. Agee is one of the film's most compelling characters and in just one of many candid moments, she bitterly says that the St. Joseph's debt is unfair, that she feels deceived by broken promises and that the experience has cost her son his self-confidence.)

A couple of years later, as Arthur is progressing through his senior year at public school, he is told he needs his transcripts from St. Joseph's to graduate — but St. Joseph's won't release them until Arthur's parents begin making payments on the $1,500.

At the beginning of the movie, as Arthur begins his tenure at St. Joseph's, we also meet the film's second subject, William Gates, a student who seems to be on the fast track for his own superstardom. His coach and a gaggle of self-important sportswriters talk him up as "the next Isiah Thomas."

Though he begins with a disappointing academic status that parallels Arthur's, William's grades improve remarkably and he is the light of his coach's eye. But soon William is sidelined by an injury, which has a dispiriting effect on him.

At home, William lives with his mother and siblings. His father, who has been gone for some time, pops up late in the picture but is never a figure in William's life. At St. Joseph's, William's talent and prospects have prompted school officials to find him a sponsor, alleviating tuition problems, but after he fathers a child and ponders marriage, he becomes more and more disillusioned with both school and basketball.

There is much more here, with plots and subplots masterfully woven together by the filmmakers, along with a huge number of amazingly well-drawn characters — from parents, siblings and friends who figure in the boys' day-to-day lives to authority figures who appear only briefly.

Much more than a movie, "Hoop Dreams" is a genuinely heartfelt experience. It works on so many levels and successfully explores so many issues that not only is the audience left thinking about each in a new light, audience-members are also bound to have new respect for documentary filmmaking as an art form.

"Hoop Dreams," which won the Audience Award at last year's Sundance Film Festival, is not rated but would probably get a PG-13 for a few scattered profanities (mostly from coaches during the heat of practice) and some cussing in a rap song, which one character listens to on a CD player.