Released just a week before Slovenia unexpectedly won EuroBasket championship, this film could hardly ever dream of a better timing. It was a dream come true for their already strong PR department, as the film is continuing to break this year’s viewing records and thus becoming a true sensation among our youngest population. But does this mean the film is actually good and worth seeing? Far from it.
It was merely two years ago that Boris Petkovič made his first jump into the genre of coming of age films with The Beat of Love – a film that for most parts felt deeply uninspired and hardly ever lifted above average. With his latest film, Let Him Be a Basketball Player, he decided to swim even deeper into the world of teens at the brink of puberty, but the result once again hasn’t been particularly successful. Adapted for screen from a 90’s children book written by Primož Suhodolčan, the story either didn’t translate well to the cinematic world, or the written material just wasn’t that good to begin with. Either/or, the end product seems stuck in time that no longer exists (if it ever truly did), has little to zero character development, suffers from a patronisingly black-and-white portrayal of the world and fails to give any kind of a (positive) message to the young audiences.
Despite not being this film’s target audience, I still remember those years all too vividly and enjoy an occasional nostalgic ride to the hormone-fulled years of recklessness, rebelliousness, bad decisions and unrequited loves. However, this is not John Hughes, Celine Sciamma or even The Edge of Seventeen, the latest outstanding discovery in the genre. In times when most teenage films deal with specific issues that should resonate with the young, still forming individuals and adults alike, this film instead feels outdated before it even properly hit the theatres. Teen films are supposed to be about children’s personal growth (and not literal, as this film would like to suggest), peer pressure, parent-child conflicts, about teens questioning their sexual (or even gender) identity. But none of that finds its way into this bland vanilla tasting movie.
The main protagonist is Ranta, the dullest, most uninteresting person whose only identifying characteristics are his height and inspiration to become a basketball player in order to impress a girl (is there ever any other reason?). As it goes, we also have a comedic side-kick – who doesn’t really have a character apart from being obnoxious and funny, and Metka, who could easily remain nameless and the effect of her being in a film would be the same. But the problems don’t stop at this unfortunate trio that is supposed to be the core of this film. There are also pure caricatures of Ranta’s parents, a mean owner of a basketball club who comes across like a cartoonish version of the mafia and a geography teacher that’s meant to be funny but comes across as the biggest bully of them all.
Not only the film fails at establishing at least one relatable, three-dimensional teen character, but it does an even poorer job with the adults – the exception being a basketball teacher, played by Marko Miladinović, who is the only one in Suhodolčan’s world of adults that doesn’t come across as a parody. However, no matter how poorly written the entire cast, I cannot ignore the way this film treats its women. Just as with a recent teenage film disaster, John Green’s Paper Towns, the entire premise of the film is built around a guy who wants to impress a girl – without ever bothering to give this girl any personality, any story arc that would exceed the obvious: she’s pretty. Even the dramatic peak of the film, when Metka accuses him of not knowing anything about her, doesn’t resonate well. First of, the argument comes across as too dramatic, as the scene is not built up to it, and it makes Metka look completely hysterical and irrational (not the only gender stereotyping scene in this film, though). And second of, for us to invest in her character we would need to know something about her, even if Ranta doesn’t. But we are left in the dark, even after she verbally expresses the wish to be “better seen”, as Petkovič is clearly not interesting in giving her any substance. The argument is thus resolved in the most pathetic tribute to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, inclusion of which is again somewhat puzzling to me, as the majority of the audience will obviously be too young to get the reference.
What then is the message that this film gives to children? That they will excel at anything they want as long as they will work hard enough? Kids should learn that sometimes things don’t work out as we would expect or want them to; sometimes other circumstances, even if we have all the right genes for it, simply work against us. And even if things somehow work out, all the hard work we put into something usually has consequences either in our social, personal or romantic life, and it changes us as a person. Ranta, however, stays the same. The same dull, uninteresting character he was at the beginning, who now knows how to throw a ball. And who stays at the right track thanks to all the women in his life: his mother whose only reason to exist is her constant providing of food and other goods, and Metka, who sacrifices all her free time to help him with the grades. Two women sacrificing themselves for nurturing a boy who thinks him playing ball is the most important thing in the world. And who, despite all that, do not deserve any substance or character, as they exist for one and only reason: to help reach Ranta his goal, to help him reach his true potential.
Because apparently, despite being written in the 90’s, this story’s soul got stuck somewhere in the 1950’s.