The filmmakers here show an admirable dedication to their art and to the underprivileged, spending five years tracking two kids, Arthur and William, and their dreams of basketball stardom. The two subjects and their families are simple and somewhat naive, in an endearing way. Their struggles, sometimes unflattering, are put forth for us to relate to, and we all can. Of course this is about two kids and their love for basketball, and about the "road to" that takes place as they try to get there, but it's really about the way people in near-poverty live, the education system and its downfalls, the manipulation of organized sports and tendency for people to try and achieve their goals through others (Arthur's father, William's brother), and the situation between blacks and whites in America. In one scene, Arthur laments being around mainly white kids for the first time in his life, and says it'll be difficult but he'll manage. That kind of relaxed confidence is so rewarding to watch. The film has endless insights into the black urban experience. Of course not every family in the ghetto is in a position where a father is a criminal and drug user, but when two kids in the same story are in that situation, it's got to be somewhat prevalent.
It's the kind of movie that's sustaining, and there are so many transcendent, revealing moments that stand out: Arthur's mother, such an inspirational woman to watch, as she gets her nurse certification; Arthur's family talking to another family in a cafeteria, with his mother high-fiving an elderly white lady; the descent into and path out of drug addiction; and a scene where the man who recruits these boys says that sometimes he has doubts about himself when he sees the pain that's a part of these kids' lives. Spike Lee makes a brief appearance giving a speech to the kids, and his pessimism is the only sore spot in the film.
We don't have to work for any of this, we don't have to question it. There's nothing to clean away before we can get to the real thing. This is the real thing. A curious moment, however, is one scene where Arthur's mother explains to us at one point she had her electricity cut off, which suggests that the crew wasn't there to film that period. But the next scene has her walking in the dark with a lamp, that seems like an undeclared "reenactment" of something they missed, for editing purposes. But the criticism of manipulation in documentaries is tired. Yes, the possibility of tricking an audience into believing something with a documentary is greater, but unless it's political in some respect it doesn't matter. Documentaries are supposed to be presented how the filmmaker sees fit. With no license, we'd have 350-hour documentaries.
At one moment near the end, William's coach says goodbye to him and as he walks out his coach mentions that that's the system: one goes out, another comes in. It feels like we're saying bye to a member of the family. This is a life-affirming experience, a family that should be visited again. 10/10