Sunday, February 12, 2006

Go see "Through the Fire"

ESPN Original Entertainment might not be the name you trust when it comes to picking what film you want to see, but they made a solid decision in backing Jonathan Hock's film Through the Fire. The movie includes a great little scene that shows the work it took at the Sports Illustrated photo shoot that led to the cover image seen above. But more to the point, the caption that accompanies the image might as well have been the tag line of a poster for the film. "Through the Fire" is all about a supremely charismatic and good-natured basketball sensation named Sebastian Telfair, and the year of his life leading up to the NBA draft.

The film begins by bringing the audience into Telfair's world, the same Brooklyn projects featured as Jay Z's stomping grounds in his 99 Problems video. Basketball is clearly one of the few activities that the guys growing up in this world have easy access to, and the competition on the courts is fierce. So when Telfair is above and beyond the competition, you believe he is something special. The film does a great job showing the desperation of the environment.

There is already a success story in Telfair's family, in that Sebastian's cousin is superstar Stephon Marbury (currently with the Knicks). But Sebastian's more immediate forerunner is his older half-brother, Jamel Thomas. Jamel was a NCAA Big East scoring leader and star at Providence. However, when he decided to go pro and enter the NBA draft, his hopes for the future were crushed when he was not selected by any team. All scenes with Jamel carry the heavy weight of disappointment for what might have been. But not because he asks for sympathy in any way; he is proud and inspirational in dealing with his setback. However, playing European pro-ball for Greece is clearly a let down from his dreams. And the close relationship with Jamal is what looms heavily over Sebastian's journey, not Marbury's success.

The intimacy that the audience gets with Telfair and his family is what makes the movie. It is stunning how much pressure is being placed on his shoulders, and how he is somehow able to summon the strength to keep it all together. The fact that Sebastian stays humble and likeable is pretty amazing for a teenager, with Derek Jeter watching at one high school gym and Jay-Z visiting him in the locker room before a game. And on top of that, Sebastian Telfair happens to be a spectacular point guard with his speed and dazzling moves.

It is hard not to compare this film with Hoop Dreams. Although the plots are similar, they provide very different experiences. "Hoop Dreams" is a more powerful movie, which digs deeper and has an epic feel. It is also more about questioning the business of basketball and its impact, whereas "Through the Fire" feels like a rags-to-riches fairy tale. But "Through the Fire" is still a compelling story, with great characters including the protagonist and his family as supporting cast.


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