Review: The dashed dreams of ‘Lenny Cooke’

A still from the documentary "Lenny Cooke," directed by Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie.
(ShopKorn Productions)

In 2001, a young New Yorker named Lenny Cooke was the country’s top-ranked high school basketball player. The hoop-dreams hope and hype were high. He was interviewed by ESPN and the New York Times and was already used to giving out autographs. And then the moment was gone. The NBA draft passed him by, as did contemporaries LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Cooke’s story, less a cautionary tale than a mythic one, is the subject of a compellingly unconventional, elliptical sports documentary that explores the mysterious realm of might-have-been. In “Lenny Cooke,” sibling directors Ben and Joshua Safdie (whose scruffy narratives include “Daddy Longlegs”), build upon found footage of the well-documented high-schooler, much of it from a never-completed film by Adam Shopkorn.

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That footage includes the landscape-shifting game that pitted Cooke against a relatively unknown James. But there’s no single reason for Cooke’s missed shot at the big leagues. He was a natural athlete but not an especially driven one. In old footage, he’s seen bristling at a coach’s disciplinary spiel. In present-day scenes, out of shape at 30 and still slightly stunned by the way things turned out, he suggests that a b-ball career was never truly his dream.


The filmmakers use a bit of digital trickery to literalize Cooke’s conversation with himself. It’s a risky ploy that doesn’t quite transcend self-consciousness but whose poignancy is undeniable. If portions of the film will resonate more with sports fans, the emotional impact of Cooke’s trajectory requires no specialized knowledge.


‘Lenny Cooke’

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.