Last week I had the pleasure and luck to attend the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It was an incredible, albeit exhausting experience, that was absolutely nothing like I expected but much more enjoyable. There was no real rubbing elbows with the rich and famous... who I'm sure were there but unlikely to expose there elbows to the constant walking up and down Main St. in Park City as I did on much of my downtime to keep semi-fit. Instead, it was a lot of the same, tremendous people inspiring you to get better or be swallowed. I saw four movies at the festival, but the one I want to focus on is the documentary on last year's NBA phenom Jeremy Lin titled, "Linsanity."
I thoroughly enjoyed the film--enjoyed in a content, happy, laughed a lot sense anyways. It was amusing, and the clips of Lin, particularly his excitement at buying a $10 water fountain at Target ON SALE, made myself and the rest of the audience laugh. Who could not like Lin after watching his self-deprecating account of his childhood piano talents. I did not however love, or even like a lot, the film. The easiest way I can describe the film's style and content matter is young adult. I felt like I was reading, in visual form, one of the glossy, brightly colored, YA biographies you buy for middle schoolers at Barnes & Noble.
The documentary had a ripe opportunity to tackle race, marketing, and the American dream at their crossroads. In fact the filmmakers, at least producer Evan Jackson Leong, stated that he wanted to explore what Lin's rise to fame meant for Asian Americans. Unfortunately, he never quite got past the journey's initial preparations. The audience wasn't treated to interviews with Asian American teenage boys who suddenly had a basketball playing hero of their own. In fact, there were two incredibly thought-provoking quotes that could have provided a thesis for the filmmakers to explore but didn't. The first was Lin himself saying bluntly to the camera he believed if he had been black more colleges would have wanted him. The second was an Asian-American blogger who said that he believes part of the reason why the Golden State Warriors' signed Lin to his initial contract was marketing: an Asian-American Bay Area kid who would appeal to the fan base. Those are powerful statements and ones which were purposefully included. So why not expound on them? Neither one was given much more than brush off treatment. Yet both were there in the film raw and underdeveloped.
Instead, the filmmakers stuck to a formulaic 30 minutes on his childhood, 30 minutes on his high school and college career, and 30 minutes on his time in the NBA (basically through the spectacular five games, as it barely touched on the remainder of his season). Nothing groundbreaking and nothing controversial. They even glossed over some of the more racist comments made by the media, presenting them as genial criticisms of the star athlete in a Nike ad.
Jeremy Lin is a real person with a real story. Linsanity is a culturally constructed phenomena reflective of America as marketing-obsessed whole (in its homeland of New York City) using Jeremy Lin as a catalyst. Lin had an incredible five games, but either the Knicks chose not to re-sign him because of his race or because they felt he couldn't replicate basketball wise the production he put up early. He's not Kobe, or Lebron, or Michael, or Wilt, or Larry, or any of the other greats to whom 70 minutes of pure basketball footage is a satisfying palate of talent, greatness, or idolism. He may be a better role model than those guys but the movie lost its footing determining whether it was a sports doc or a human interest piece, and never explored fully the center of the Venn diagram.
Don't get me wrong, I found myself really liking Jeremy Lin. I just wanted more. This was Sundance. This wasn't a 30 minute ESPN 'Outside the Lines' piece. It was a 90 minute documentary premiering at the nation's most prestigious independent film festival. The bar has recently been set for sports documentaries with the ESPN '30 for 30' series and HBO films. Some of those are incredible pieces of documentary film making that transcend sports as it infiltrates culture, the human will, emotion, and form a complete cerebral experience. This wasn't it.
This Film School Rejects review is a little easier on the film's glorification of Lin's story as being without controversy than I am, but it makes very real assertions in the film about the racism Lin faced and then shies away from exploring those. So it wasn't as though Lin was 'ok' with everything that happened. Nor were the filmmakers or they wouldn't have chosen to explore Lin's story before he became an overnight sensation. On the whole I believe my feelings may be more succinctly reflected in this Hitflix review. (Note: while I don't believe the 'Gangnam Style' choice was a huge deal, I do see where Feinberg is coming from in his criticism).
I would grade the film on the cusp of a B-/B, perhaps edging toward B for the effort the filmmakers went through and the passion they clearly had. In another setting I might have even leaned toward B+. But it wasn't, and audience expectation are very real criticisms in film making. With so many good sports documentaries I just can't justify giving 'Linsanity' a stellar review. However, if you're in the mood for a feel good movie with a basketball theme and some funny clips you can do no wrong with this Jeremy Lin tale.