PARK CITY, Utah — The Baltimore Ravens finally got over the hump and won an AFC championship, but it was a sports victory of a different sort that filled the air Sunday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Linsanity,” the documentary about the rise of unlikely NBA point guard Jeremy Lin, premiered in Park City to rousing response, easily making it one of the most crowd-pleasing documentaries to play the festival this year. Sports fans stood up and cheered, while a coach said he thought it should be mandatory viewing for high school athletes.
Rags-to-riches tales don’t come any richer than this. Raised by Taiwanese immigrants in Northern California, Lin was overlooked at every stage of his career before becoming a sensation quite literally overnight a year ago. Lin’s high school team wasn’t given a prayer against Southland powerhouse Mater Dei. Recruits at Pac-10 schools passed him by. He went undrafted before being signed by various NBA teams and relegated to their lowly D-league squads.
Even when he’s leading the Knicks to a spectacular run, Lin is disrespected by Kobe; in a famous clip presented in the film, Kobe says he barely knows who Lin is — right before the point guard lights up the Lakers for more than 40 points.
Directed by first-time feature helmer Evan Jackson Leong, the film lays it all out in great detail, going back to Lin’s childhood in Palo Alto to the weeks that changed everything last February.
Leong has footage from the early days, since he and his crew approached Lin and began filming him when he was at Harvard.
“It was a project of passion,” said Leong after the screening. “We had no money. Nobody cared about our project before February of last year,” adding that he was surprised as anyone to see his longstanding documentary subject become a sensation. “In a documentary like this you don’t know how it’s going to end,” he said. (Lin, incidentally, was not there, though the current Rockets point guard may attend Sundance later in the festival.)
Leong’s access can lead to a lack of distance — there's a bit of a hagiographic air to the tale, and Lin is given a little too much time to indulgently tout his faith, up to a last line that has him saying he that by “playing for God” he can “walk on water.” But it also gives us an intimate knowledge of a world we often only see at press-room distance.
PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2013 - The Scene
“Linsanity” also highlights the serendipity in Lin’s story. The film suggests that the player was the beneficiary of the NBA lockout: the months of delays at the start of last year’s basketball season allowed him, he says in the film, to sharpen his game, while the compressed schedule led to injuries that gave him a shot to play. (A day before Lin would likely have been cut he was given a last-ditch shot by the injury-riddled Knicks. He went out and scored 25 points.)
The films shows the psyche of a man who genuinely struggled — on the court with doubts about his game and off the court with a series of racist taunts he faced as the first Asian-American to start in the NBA.
And finally, it covers and gently mocks the media storm that followed Lin a year ago at this time. The montage of quick clips is slick and potent and right out of a Hollywood movie about an overnight success, only the story here is bolstered by being real.
"Welcome to the Jeremy Lin Toyota halftime report," sports host Michael Wilbon quips in the film, while David Letterman is shown getting his jacket adorned so it features Lin’s well-known No. 17. There’s also a funny tongue-in-cheek moment with President Obama being asked about Lin. “I'm not saying responsible. But I was there early,” he quips, referring to his following Lin’s career at Harvard.
PHOTOS: Sundance 2013: premieres
The film covers plenty of ground that will be familiar to hard-core sports fans, but it also unearths new nuggets.
Among the juicy moments: Lin’s confession in the back of a New York city cab that a Madison Square Garden security guard wouldn’t let him into the building because he didn’t believe Lin played for the Knicks.
And though Lin can play his cards close, Leong also captures him in moments of honesty.
“How am I supposed to play if everyone is looking at me expecting me to make a miraculous play every time I touch the basketball?” he says at one point.
The film is seeking a distributor at Sundance. Producer Endgame Entertainment presumably brought the movie to the festival in the hope of landing a bigger deal than the ESPN-centric home many sports movies get. From the reaction to Sunday’s screening, the company may well get it.
Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT