The images from the film “Hoop Dreams” that leave the largest imprint are those of extreme happiness and sadness. An example is the look on the face of young Arthur Agee when he gets to play basketball, one on one, with his idol Isiah Thomas. Another is when William Gates, while receiving embraces from family and friends, cries because he has lost an important game.
There are plenty of emotional moments like those in the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which chronicles five pivotal years in the lives of Arthur and William. When we first meet these two, they are shooting hoops in their inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago. Both are fantastic players and are given scholarships to go to St. Joseph High School, a preppy private school that will take on the image of a faceless conglomerate in the way it uses the teenage players.
Arthur begins his stay at St. Joseph on the freshman team. He does not perform to the potential the school had hoped, so the minute his parents have trouble paying the tuition, the school drops him. William, however, starts his freshman year on the varsity team and quickly becomes a star.
Over the rest of their high school careers, the two will have to constantly push themselves, especially William, to play better, and in the scholastic sense, think better. But standing in their way are their personal handicaps. For Arthur, it’s his environment, a high school where there are too many distractions for him. He has motivational trouble. For William, it’s the problems and injuries arising from one of his knees that hold him back.
Arthur and William are infinitely interesting people, and as they attempt to overcome the obstacles in their way, we cheer them on.
One thing the film exposes is the impersonal “meat market” style that the high schools (later, the colleges) do business in. This is illustrated by the way the people at St. Joseph, and particularly head coach Gene Pingatore, conduct themselves. At no time does it feel like Pingatore really cares about William or Arthur, he just wants to sculpt and exploit their talents for his glory. He is the closest thing to a villain this film has.
Over the course of the years “Hoop Dreams” covers, we get a feel for the kind of pressures these two have to work under. One is the feeling that, as William puts it, everyone wants to be his coach. His older brother, a has-been basketball star, is realizing his dream through William. For Arthur, it’s his father, who also was a talented player in high school and thinks he can help coach Arthur. He even says he could have made it to the NBA, but his wife’s facial expression at that statement suggests otherwise.
“Hoop Dreams” is not a complex film, it merely documents five years of both boys’ lives, but it contains countless small stories complete with triumphs and defeats. It’s the way small moments and the overall story of Arthur and William’s progression through high school combine that make “Hoop Dreams” unforgettable.
At the end, the film has the feel of an epic; it has beautifully brought to the screen the two most important elements of any film: emotion and feeling.
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