Chang Can Dunk Review

A sports underdog story with a twist that manages to not just be a feel good movie but a good movie that makes you feel.

Last Updated on April 4, 2023

Plot: Follows Chang, a 16-year-old, Asian American high school student in the marching band, who bets the school basketball star that he can dunk by Homecoming. The bet leads the 5’ 8″ Chang on a quest to find the hops he needs to dunk in order to impress his crush, Kristy, and finally gain the attention and respect of his high school peers. But before he can rise up and truly throw one down, he’ll have to reexamine everything he knows about himself, his friendships and his family.  

Review: The tried and true formula of sports underdog stories has been a staple of movies for decades. From Rocky to Hoosiers, The Mighty Ducks to Remember the Titans, every sport has had a cinematic showcase allowing audiences to believe that even the average can do the incredible. With training montages, adversity overcome, and some inspirational music to liven the mood, sports movies run the gamut from corny to sincere, comedic to dramatic. They often lack an original twist that makes these cinderella stories seem realistic and fail to accomplish anything different from the films that came before them. At first glance, the trailer for Chang Can Dunk makes it look like another one of these expected sports movies. The twist looks to cast an Asian-American as the lead character in an ode to the undersized Rudy upending expectations. Instead, this movie is so much more and caught me off guard with where it takes this story.

Chang Can Dunk opens with a sense of humor as it follows the sixteen-year-old high schooler played by Bloom Li. Trying to reinvent himself from the nerdy kid everyone ignores, Chang has a new haircut, new sneakers, and a new outlook. When he and his best friend Bo (Ben Wang) meet Kristy (Zoe Renee), Chang falls for the cute drummer obsessed with 90s rock bands. Also into Kristy is Chang’s former friend and popular basketball player Matt (Chase Liefeld). Feeling threatened by Matt, Chang makes the ambitious bet that he could slam dunk a basketball in three months. The loser gets their head shaved, and if Chang wins, he gets Matt’s signed Kobe Bryant jersey. If Matt wins, Chang will give up a rare Pokemon card worth over three thousand dollars. At first glance, this bet and set-up sound like par for a Disney original movie. Granted, this was less than thirty minutes in, so I gave it a chance.

Knowing he cannot do it alone, Chang enlists aspiring YouTuber and former basketball player DeAndre (Dexter Darden). The two strike a deal: DeAndre will train Chang to dunk in exchange for recording their sessions for his social media channels. As Chang’s popularity rises online and his skills improve, so do his self-confidence and relationship with Kristy. At the same time, Chang struggles with his mother, Chen (Mardy Ma), a single mom who does not understand her son’s inability to stick with anything. With dad out of the picture, Chen’s relationship with Chang is strained, and he mostly keeps his dunk ambitions a secret from her. During the middle part of the film, there are a lot of training sequences, cut creatively to the tune of many 90s songs I had virtually forgotten about.

When the day arrives, Chang prepares for his moment of truth, and a quick glance at the film’s running time shows there are still close to forty-five minutes left in the movie. Without divulging just what happens, I can tell you that screenwriter/director Jingyi Shao has much bigger ambitions with this story than the traditional underdog movie can contain. The trailers are constructed very well not to give away too much about this story, but rest assured, this is still a movie about whether or not Chang Can Dunk. I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite some funny moments throughout the film, this is an emotional movie that carries a good amount of drama without crossing into saccharine or insincere emotion. Bloom Li does an excellent job of making Chang likable even when he lets his growing popularity get the best of him. There are consequences to everyone’s actions in this movie, good and bad, that tread the line between feel-good and just making you feel.

While culture plays a factor in this story, it is less of a racial bias element than the generational divide between Chang and his mother. The diverse cast is never played as a plot element; the characters are treated as characters. Jingyi Shao wrote this script, ranked on the annual Black List of unproduced screenplays in 2020, with an ear for realistic teen dialogue that never makes this movie feel like a Disney movie but rather a movie premiering on Disney+. The story is appropriate for all ages, with one obvious f-bomb being recorded to keep this movie closer to PG than PG-13. Chang Can Dunk also benefits from corporate synergy at Disney, with ESPN playing a key role in the story, including some cameos from the sports network’s roster of talent. None of the celebrities in the story take away from the core focus on Chang himself, with Bloom Li delivering a challenging role that many viewers are unlikely to see coming.

Chang Can Dunk surprised me by exceeding my expectations and circumventing them entirely. Streaming movies are often really good or bad; thankfully, Chang Can Dunk falls into the former. Not wholly a sports underdog story, this movie works because it never panders to the audience or goes for insincere moments. The emotional weight of this movie is earned every step along the way and will appeal to all ages who enjoy a solid tale about following your dream. Dunking is a very specific goal, and I hope that viewers do not shy away from giving this one a chance, as it will definitely not be what you expect it to be. Chang Can Dunk lives up to its trailer but manages to keep some surprises for those who give it a shot.

Source: JoBlo.com

About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.