[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2000]
Monica (Sanaa Lathan) is a fierce, hot-tempered competitor whose tomboy years of playground ball with the boys have given her a more aggressive game than women’s basketball refs like to see. Cocky nextdoor neighbor Quincy (Omar Epps) is the son of an NBA player with pro dreams who becomes a high school and college star athlete, playing just as rough a game to the cheers of fans. We know they’re destined for one-on-one from their first meeting as grade school kids in a driveway game of pick-up. Monica so outplays the flabbergasted Quincy that he shoves her off the court, giving her a combination battle scar and love memento she wears with pride.
Their tetchy game of high school rivalry is belied by a hidden friendship. When Quincy flees the shouting of another parental row one night, Monica lets him through her bedroom window and he curls up on her floor. That quiet warmth anchors their relationship even when the script falls into familiar melodrama in the third quarter. Monica’s temper flares up at his naturally flirtatious nature, Quincy sinks into self-pity and petty behavior when he discovers his father’s infidelities, and the high school friends turned college lovers break up. For good? Come on, this is the movies. Sports are unpredictable but romance is certain.
Using sports as a metaphor for life and love is nothing new, but filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, a former college athlete, puts her spin on the story by spotlighting Monica’s struggle in the rarely dramatized world of women’s basketball. Cross-cutting between their respective college efforts, we witness Monica’s sweat and tears and sheer physical dedication; in the background, the tiny audiences in small gyms and second-rate auditoriums of her games contrast sharply with Quincy, who plays in huge courts to cheering sold-out crowds. With the story set in the late 1980s, years before the WNBA, she has few options for a future in basketball.
Monica is a vivid, fiery character and a passionate player, and Lathan takes her through moments of elation and disappointment with convincing pride and vulnerability. If Epps is less interesting, it’s more a matter of scripting than performance—one moment he’s articulate and sensitive, the next sullen and uncommunicative—but his charismatic charm carries him through.
It’s a shame that Monica’s richness comes at the expense of Quincy’s character, but perhaps a fair trade. This is the rare sports film that favors the woman’s struggle over the man’s in a male-dominated sport, and an even rarer one to reveal such a sharp, savvy contrast.