“Chang Can Dunk” doesn’t go the way in which you’d count on, and that’s a very good factor. Right here’s a Disney film a couple of 5-foot-8-inch Chinese language American highschool basketball participant who bets his rival that he can dunk by the tip of the season. He will get his want about an hour in (that’s neither spoiler nor shock, because the title actually tells us that Chang can dunk), however there’s nonetheless a great distance for the character to go — and develop — in a movie that believes maturity isn’t achieved by shortcuts.
The consequence marks the attention-worthy debut of writer-director Jingyi Shao, and exemplifies the kind of films Disney needs to be making: It has its values in the fitting place, however doesn’t faux its hero is ideal. If there’s a villain in “Chang Can Dunk,” that position is arguably crammed by the title character (tenaciously embodied by Bloom Li, who retains us questioning learn how to really feel about Chang). In time, the obsessive teen’s ultra-competitive character winds up alienating virtually everybody in his life, besides demanding single mother Chen (a superb Mardy Ma), whose tough-love strategy solely amplifies his resentment.
However first the wager: In school, Chang can’t stand how others see him — principally, as a geek, splitting his consideration between drum line and basketball. When new woman Kristy (Zoe Renee) reveals up, he’s immediately smitten and greater than slightly determined to get her consideration, however predictably peeved when his childhood buddy Matt (Chase Liefeld), now king of the jock squad, swoops in and invitations her to a celebration. Judging by Chang’s short-fuse reactions, Matt has been chipping away at his self-confidence for some time now. As a substitute of being the larger man, Chang snaps, swearing to any who will pay attention that he can enhance his vertical soar in 12 weeks’ time.
This being 2023, there are many witnesses to the wager, recording all the things on their digital camera telephones whereas Chang loses his cool. The wager makes for an fascinating twist on the traditional Disney setup, through which lead characters clearly specific the “I need” needs that drive them: Chang needs to dunk, however greater than that, he needs to get again on the common youngsters who underestimated him. Whereas the hip-hop soundtrack provides added gas to Chang’s swagger, the deeper-than-it-looks film additionally challenges whether or not it is a wholesome method for Chang to cope with his insecurities.
Drawing on his personal Chinese language American heritage, the director brings Chang’s second-generation immigrant id into the combo. That provides contemporary dimension to the character. Chang has been picked on for thus lengthy, he tends to imagine the worst about others’ remedy of him, studying racism into what might be benign exchanges. However even there, the dynamic isn’t as simplistic as in so many anti-bullying films. Matt’s common and good-looking and comes from a wealthier household than Chang’s, however he’s not malicious, whereas there’s a imply streak underlying the way in which that Chang needs to indicate him up, and each Kristy and tech-savvy sidekick Bo (Ben Wang) decide up on it.
These two encourage their good friend at first, serving to him discover a “coach” — a sketchy dude named Deandre (Dexter Darden) who might’ve gone professional — and making flashy movies of Chang’s progress. However as soon as their good friend makes the shot, the glory and a spotlight go to his head, they usually fairly rapidly determine they’ve had sufficient of “Chang 2.0.” It needs to be mentioned that Renee makes Kristy much more fascinating than a mere “love curiosity”; she’s no person’s trophy.
Working with Hillman Grad producers Rishi Rajani and Lena Waithe, Shao presents a posh and at occasions off-putting protagonist in Chang. Certain, he simply grabs our sympathy early on — the man’s the underdog in any case — however as soon as his ego swells and sure character flaws come to gentle, the film obliges us to see issues in another way. That’s a refreshing departure from different movies’ insistence on having a “likable” lead, and one which yields a richer ethical conundrum total.
After an argument between Chang and Matt escalates right into a bodily altercation, the college principal calls their mother and father, at which level, the strained relationship between Chang and his Mandarin-speaking mom evolves from being a mere subplot to one of many film’s strongest elements. Till then, Chang has saved Chen out of his enterprise, so she’s shocked to find how a lot of her son’s life he’s been hiding from her. Chang has a whole lot of restore work to do within the second half of the film, and Shao ensures that the character earns his redemption. Like many a Disney character earlier than him, Chang desires massive, however ultimately, he has to succeed in that aim on his personal.