Chang Can Dunk
A pleasing underdog sports story that contains hidden depths and complexity you might not expect from a youth-oriented Disney+ feature.
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“Chang Can Dunk” surprised me. It starts off as a pleasing, somewhat formulaic underdog sports story about an unremarkable Asian-American high school kid who boasts that he could dunk a basketball, and then sets out to make it happen.
Does Chang actually dunk? Look, I don’t think I’m giving anything away in discussing a youth-oriented feature on the Disney+ platform. I mean, the title isn’t “Chang Thinks He Can Dunk.” Leather is going to get slammed through a rim at some point.
What surprised me was when and how it happens. And, mostly, what happens after.
“Chang” has hidden depths and complexities you probably don’t expect in a movie of this sort. Credit writer/director Jingyi Shao, in his first feature film, for striving for something bigger and better and even darker than the usual teenybopper mix of determination, bullies, could-be girlfriends and amiable sidekicks.
Chang (Bloom Li) is a smart, seemingly happy sophomore who plays drums in the marching band. He used to hoop all the time, but he only grew to 5’8” and the competition clearly left him behind, including former elementary school friend Matt (Chase Liefeld), who stars on the basketball team, dunks lavishly and has aspirations of playing at a Division I school.
His dad died in the near past, and Chang’s mom, Chen (Mardy Ma), is clearly struggling in balancing her roles as a nurse and sole parent. She’s got the tired middle-aged multi-tasker face I recognize in the mirror every day. Chen is also a traditional Chinese mom, sometimes harsh in her criticism (always delivered in Mandarin). Her biggest complaint is that Chang is a floater who can’t seem to commit to any one thing for very long.
She ain’t wrong. Chang, for his part, is tired of having been an invisible freshman and is determined to launch “Chang 2.0.” This version will be cooler, have a new mod haircut, will get a girlfriend and all the other stuff that’s supposed to instantly transform you when you’re 16.
Things start off on the right foot with the introduction of Kristy (a charismatic Zoe Renee), the new snare drummer who just moved to town. They quickly bond over music and geek culture stuff, and it seems like she’s receptive to it growing into something more.
But Matt starts horning in with his cursed tallness, dimples and curls, and Chang becomes insanely jealous. After being humiliated by Matt at a party, Chang confronts him at school and boasts that he could dunk a basketball if he really wanted to. A bet is soon made: loser shaves his head, and each surrenders a precious collectible — Matt’s Kobe Bryant jersey against Chang’s Pokémon Charizard card.
Chang has 10 weeks to make it happen, so he enlists the aid of Deandre (Dexter Darden), a former local hoops star who played professional ball overseas. He now works at a Verizon store and makes goofy basketball videos where he dresses up as an Urkle-style nerd and then schools unsuspecting victims.
Chang has no money — his mom insists he volunteer at her hospital rather than get a job — so his best friend, Bo (Ben Wang), offers to snazz up Deandre’s videos with his multimedia skills.
It all works spectacularly, as the video series on Chang’s quest goes viral. They do the usual Rocky-style training montages, and his leaps start getting higher and higher. What’s more, just striving for something solidifies Chang’s confidence and makes him more popular at school.
I’ll leave the plot summary there, other than to say this is the beginning rather than the resolution of the story. Chang will grow as a person, but also face temptation about his newfound status as a media celebrity.
He and his mom will also have some rather stark encounters where they talk about why they have so much trouble getting along. A porch his dad was building when he died, left unfinished and chaotic, stands as a silent totem representing the unsettled state of affairs between them.
Like the dunking challenge, things will get resolved, but not in the way we expect.
What’s interesting and commendable about “Chang Can Dunk” is that it takes a very simple and straightforward premise, and then the ball bounces in a different direction than everyone’s expecting. Maybe in some ways better, in other ways worse.
It’s a story about chasing your goals, but also being willing to adapt your goals to reality and changing circumstances. Somewhere between resolve and stubbornness lies the true sweet spot.