Here’s the second high school basketball documentary I’ve seen in a week. “Prayer for a Perfect Season,” which debuts on HBO tonight (totally fittingly as part of HBO Sports not HBO Documentaries), is very different than “Elevate,” however, and definitely nothing like “Hoop Dreams,” the standard for this subject matter. It’s fast, literal, incredibly current and obviously prophetic. Rather than following some NBA hopefuls who aren’t certainly going to make it, here we have some of the greatest teens presently playing the sport, and at least one or two will definitely be pro in the coming years. It’s the best-edited and most satisfying sports doc I’ve seen this year after “Senna.”
Directed by Marc Levin (“The Last Party”; “Mr. Untouchable”), the film follows the 2010-2011 season of New Jersey’s St. Patrick Celtics, consistently one of the best high school varsity teams in the country, while focusing on their very heated rivalry with nearby St. Anthony, another high-ranking school (and already subject of the 2010 documentary “The Street Stops Here”). Many of the basketballers at St. Patrick commute from worse areas of New Jersey and are overcoming violence and other hardships at home. To then be yelled at by hothead coach Kevin Boyle is probably a piece of cake, especially when the award-winning mentor has such a reputation for leading teams to state and national championships and sending players to the NBA. So long as he doesn’t get banned from the state tournament like he did in the 2009-2010 season.
“Prayer,” which is very heavily narrated by actor Bobby Cannavale (kind of funny if you’ve seen “Win Win”) and features many interviews employed more as voice-over than talking head, is the kind of doc that tells more than it shows, which is an initial fault. And Levin and editor James Lester have compiled what’s primarily a feature-length montage of quickly cut sequences shot throughout the team’s year. This makes for a swift and rather abridged narrative, yet it’s also quite exhausting at the same time. Unlike “Elevate” and other films that feel so episodic in their spottiness of coverage, this film gives the impression it had a camera on the players continuously over its length of concentration. It’s hard to believe only around 250 hours of footage was shot for the doc, as is the claim. Either way, Levin and Lester did a remarkable job paring it down to a concise and comprehensive 90 minutes.
Not all of the film is so quickly cut, and there is indeed some drama at different times. In fact usually when there is drama, Levin thankfully slows the pace down so we can get enough of this player’s story — say he’s one of a set of twins where the brother took another path and is currently in prison — or that player’s tragedy — one kid’s (other) father figure, an onscreen character in his own right, dies during the season — or another player’s big, scary injury. When these moments hit, they feel especially real and emotional and significant contrasted against the other sequences, because they’re such rare, isolated and chosen scenes and situations. That said, some of the fast-paced parts are just totally riveting, such as a sequence in which the Celtics compete in the City of Palms Classic tournament and the exciting down-to-the-wire final game is like something scripted for a conventional (yet nevertheless intense) Hollywood basketball movie.
The doc’s actual climax — which is also the team’s — is not so electrifying, but that’s fine. After the season is over, what follows with Boyle and the players is perfectly engaging and would be just the same whether the team won or lost. At this point you start to recognize, too, how much you’ve gotten to know and become invested in these people’s lives, in spite of how little it seemed to be a character study beforehand. “Prayer” is like an osmotic magic trick of a documentary, and if ever a film made me want to get into basketball it’s this. See, I’ve always been turned off by how fast-paced the game is and never really gave it much chance. My attention span never seemed fit. But now I’m wondering if Levin’s film isn’t appropriately much different than the sport itself. If basketball is this kinetic and penetrating, I might just need to pay attention this coming season. Perhaps to the college level, which will be starring players from both “Elevate” and “Prayer for a Perfect Season” this year.