We all know how coming-of-age stories are; we probably have the formula byhearted by now. An insecure high school teen embarks on a journey of self-discovery as they face a problem that is difficult but not impossible to solve with the assistance of supportive friends. Of course, there’s a subplot involving some meet-cute interaction and dysfunctional family dynamics. Chang Can Dunk (2023), written and directed by debutant Jingyi Shao, engages all these formulaic tropes in storytelling and makes splendid use of them to subvert a few of them and improve on the others.

For the uninformed, the movie begins with a small video representing what ‘dunk’ means. It is a technique in basketball where the player shoots the ball down the basket while keeping their hands above the rim. It is believed to be an ‘art’ in basketball. Our protagonist, Chang (played by Bloom Li), is an Asian-American teen who plays for the school marching band but dreams of performing a slam dunk in basketball.

He instantly falls for the new band member, Kristy (played by Zoe Renee). Unfortunately, his former best friend, Matt (played by Chase Liefeld), bullies him and is clearly trying to flirt with his new crush. So, Chang challenges him – in ten weeks, he shall perform a slam dunk, failing which he shall give away his rare first edition Pokemon card to Matt. The story follows exactly as you think it should up to a certain point.

Chang is 5.8 inches tall. It is difficult for him to ace the dunk statistically. However, he puts his heart and soul into practicing for it, going so far as to find himself a basketball coach who is filming Chang’s dedication – with the help of Chang’s best friend, Bo (played by Ben Wang) – only to succeed ultimately. However, the circumstances of this win and the ramifications of the same are the deal breaker here. Shao’s movie takes an unexpected turn just when you think it is reaching the same old pseudo-inspirational conclusion, amusing you in a positive way. The film, for a change, forces its protagonist and the audience to look within.

I am particularly happy with how Shao has chosen to bring nuance to the conventional subplots in this movie. Chang shares a friendship with Kristy that doesn’t go down the traditional road of high school romance, and his relationship with his mother is strained but promising. Most importantly, unlike the stereotype of best friends in teen movies, nothing about Bo’s gender identity dominates his personality.

He is, instead, interested in camera equipment and filmmaking – a fresh change. The little things these characters – Bo, Kristy, and Chang’s mother, Chen – share with the protagonist, from a bowl of beef stew to a date at a music store, make this movie stand out from other films belonging to this category.

The writing of the film is equally well done.  In one of the scenes, when Chang and his mother fall out at dinner, the latter comes off as someone who has difficulty vocalizing her feelings to her son, while Chang behaves like a quintessentially angsty 16 years-old teen. The amends in this relationship is shown when Chen transfers a few pieces of meat from her bowl to his at dinner later one day – a small and subtle gesture of parental love and affection.

The whole film plays on the variations of the idea that “every obstacle is an opportunity,” the motto that drives Chang towards achieving his personal goals in the first place. Bloom Li makes for a likable protagonist, and the supporting actors are all full of punch in their performances that help sustain your attention throughout the movie.

Whether or not Chang can dunk may be one of the less significant aspects of the plot. What matters more is how Chang, an imperfect teen protagonist, strives to find his way into bigger life realizations than dunking to appear cool and impress his crush. Chang Can Dunk (2023) leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside as a large bite of a piece of gooey brownie would. It has to be one of the better coming-of-age dramas I have watched in recent times. 

Read More: The Top 25 Best Sports Movies of All-Time

Chang Can Dunk (2023) Movie Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Chang Can Dunk (2023) Movie Cast – Bloom Li, Ben Wang, Zoe Renee, Mardy Ma, Dexter Darden
Where to watch Chang Can Dunk

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