It’s a Philippine Basketball Association game in 2003. The Purefoods Tender Juicy Hotdogs—formerly the Purefoods Corned Beef Cowboys, now known as the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers—are playing against the Shell Turbo Chargers. The on-air commentators are discussing the Hotdogs’ new player, a young American named Lenny Cooke. “Is there anything this guy can’t do?” one of them says. Then he corrects himself: “Well, if he could do everything, he’d probably be in the NBA right now.”
Three years earlier, Cooke was the top high-school basketball player in the U.S. He ranked above LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, but was never drafted into the NBA. He never went to college, instead playing in a series of increasingly minor leagues, before quitting the sport at age 24. His brief moment as a fan favorite in the PBA would be the closest he would ever come to stardom.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s Lenny Cooke is as much a salvage operation as a documentary. Static-filled VHS recordings of long-forgotten broadcasts intermingle with footage from a scrapped movie about Cooke shot by producer Adam Shopkorn in early 2000s. The format and subject matter might seem like an odd match for the Safdies, sibling filmmakers best known for making micro-indies (The Pleasure Of Being Robbed, Daddy Longlegs) and shorts about New York eccentrics. However, Lenny Cooke is less of an outlier than it initially seems. It shares with their fiction work a ragged visual sensibility, a bittersweet worldview, and a low-key, moment-to-moment approach to drama.
The question of why Cooke’s career never materialized hangs over the movie, but is never answered. What emerges instead is a portrait of a talented teenager being readied—by coaches, basketball camps, and the media—for a future that doesn’t arrive. With its emphasis on prodigies, difficult personalities, and triumphant returns, basketball comes the closest of any televised team sport to being a narrative medium. In many ways, Lenny Cooke functions as a subtle indictment of the way that sort of narrative building can ruin people’s lives, creating story arcs that they can never live out.
When the adult Cooke shows up in the last stretch of the film, he points out that he has always gone by Leonard; the nickname “Lenny,” invented by coaches, represents a different person. The closing scene digitally composites the present-day Cooke into Shopkorn’s footage of “Lenny” hanging out at a basketball camp in 2001. This ballsy conceit doesn’t completely work, but it still makes for a touching filmmaking gesture, allowing a man to reclaim his past on his own terms.