Bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay.
Where my dogs at? Bark with my now.
—Lil Bow Wow, “Bow Wow (What’s My Name?)”
“I wish I had your talent.” Like so many fans, Brian (Taylor Gray) is less than articulate when he meets his idol, in this case Kevin Durant. But as painful as the moment may be—as awkward as both Durant and his 16-year-old admirer look while gazing into one another’s eyes over a basketball they hold, together, in their hands—it becomes the basis of Thunderstruck.
It’s a movie you’ve mostly seen before, combining big chunks of Like Mike and Freaky Friday, with a dash of Kazaam, in order to set the hapless white boy in Oklahoma City on a path to self-understanding. This path begins as he’s an outcast in high school, the perennially losing basketball team’s manager, and the victim of his little sister Ashley (Hana Hayes), who regularly videotapes his efforts to shoot a basket in their driveway and then posts to YouTube. The kids at school are mean (they also tend to be in the cafeteria a lot, so that they can be collectively mean, jeering at the latest YouTube upload while Brian cringes and slinks away). The teachers are non-existent. And the parents, well, they show up conveniently, like when Brian’s dad (William Ragsdale) offers to allay his misery over the afternoon’s humiliation by taking him to a Thunder game on a school night. This leads to further humiliation, when Brian misses the halftime show basket (also missing out on the $20,000 prize).
Here his luck changes, sort of, as the miss also affords him an accidental meeting with Durant, an exchange of musings on talent and hard work (Durant insists he believes in the latter, even as the movie does its best to argue against him), and a magical (not to say Magical Negro) transfer of Durant’s talent to the white boy. The movie doesn’t show Durant playing badly in the second half, but instead cuts to the next morning, when Brian wakes to the sound of sports radio, reporting that he “totally [stunk] it up.” This bit of narration by media announcer is typical of sports movies, of course, though usually there’s some imagery to illustrate; Thunderstruck repeatedly opts for the cheapest possible narrative devices, borrowing TV footage when Durant is playing well, showing scripted derogatory banter by NBA analysts Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Marv Albert when he’s playing poorly.
At school that day Brian discovers he now has talent, that he can spin books on his finger and also shoot baskets. He insists on trying out for the team, despite nominal resistance by the gruff Coach Amross (Jim Belushi) and his submissive assistant, Dan (Robert Belushi). All the teammates marvel at Brian’s newfound brilliance: he can hit the three ball from anywhere, dunk as if launched from a trampoline, pass like Magic, and rebound too. While his most persistent abuser, the white bully and team star Connor (Spencer Daniels), remains skeptical of Brian’s transformation, he wins over the black players, who laugh and cavort and generally appreciate both Connor and Coach’s comeuppance.
This is not to say the movie is going to look into race or racism in sports, in high school, in Oklahoma City or in America. The black players here don’t even have names in the film’s credits, most listed only as “basketball player.” It is to say that it makes a special-effected spectacle of Brian’s (stolen) talent, emphasizing how “unnatural” it is and also hoe little he works at it. At the same time, he reaps plenty of rewards, including the affection of the pretty new girl in school, Isabel (Tristin Mays), and also behaves badly, ignoring his best nerd friend Mitch (Larramie Doc Shaw) (“I love you like the brother I never wanted,” he reassures Brian). The facts that the girlfriend is Latina and the best friend is black are noticeable, given how white the school population appears, but the film, again, presents these (smart marketing) casting choices as if they are incidental, as no one says a word about any of it.
The character who does most of the talking in Thunderstruck is Durant’s supposed agent Alan (Brandon T. Jackson). He talks to Durant incessantly, especially when they’re practicing after hours together (because, presumably, the movie budget didn’t include filming the team practicing: Alan mentions James Hardin at one point, but otherwise, they’re never a factor, an omission that’s not a little strange for a basketball story). Alan’s chatter makes him a stereotypically ambitious and aggressive agent, one of those guys who fast-talks his way into and out of all kinds of deals, who measures success by dollar amounts, and who wouldn’t actually be caught dead practicing with a superstar client.
Alan’s yappiness underscores Durant’s famous low-key manner, and at least some of the movies appears inclined to affirm his brand: he’s quiet, he wears a backpack, he practices a lot.His brand also features a close relationship with his mother, Wanda Pratt, who appears regularly at his games. Here she makes an appearance that might generously be described as ill-advised. Acting on a phone call from Alan (which suggests that, unlike in real life, she somehow doesn’t know how he’s playing), she arrives in the practice facility determined to “cheer up” her boy. She smiles brightly, jumps up and down a few times, and offers him some soup.
Perhaps this is a joke referring to Mama McNabb’s Campbell’s campaign, but Thunderstruck is so discombobulated, it’s hard to say. What is clear is that no one looks comfortable here. And Durant might think about a new agent.