“Playin’ For Love” is text book indie flick predictable storytelling. It’s filled with unknown actors, sprinkled with familiar faces, and occasional cringeworthy dialogue. In fact, you may be tempted to brush past it online or on DVD. Yet, the film’s leads, Robert Townsend and Sali Richardson-Whitfield, take the content and turn it into a romantic comedy that’s hard to resist.
Coach Banks (Robert Townsend) is known as the “general amongst generals” in high school basketball. He has six championships under his leadership and now he has upcoming star Justice McCoy (Daniel Yorel Cooper) on his team. Justice, however, comes with a hefty price tag in the form of his strong-willed mother Talisa (Sali Richardson-Whitfield).
The movie plays out over the course of Justice’s senior year. Coach Banks has an opportunity to coach in the NCAA if he can get Justice to sign to a certain team. With his mother in the way, Coach Banks tries to work his angles to remove her. Talisa’s intelligence and love for both the game of basketball and her children proves to be more than he was expecting as a genuine relationship blossoms.
The film’s major flaw is that the supporting players are only there as vehicles to keep Banks and Talisa’s story going, coming in and out conveniently. Basketball takes backseat to the driving romance. The majority of the film is off the court, and the camera stays on sticks when it’s on the court instead of moving around with the action. You really have to trust that the basketball team is as good as they say it is, because the film edits heavily around games. So don’t look for incredible action in the form of basketball.
That being said, the romantic story off the court makes up for what it lacks on the court. The chemistry between Townsend and Richardson-Whitfield is palpable and the butterflies of falling in love are equally tangible in the frame. In typical Townsend fashion, the film hits on poignant familial themes like blended families, fathers being present in their child’s lives, and watching what your kids listen to. The moments are real and bring heartfelt social commentary to the film.
Robert Townsend brings years of experience to the role, giving Coach Banks an arrogant external shell and vulnerable interior needed for the role. Sali Richardson-Whitfield’s performance made me look up her IMDB page to find out what else she’s been in! (I found out it’s mostly television, which I plan to watch just to see her performances.) Her character is ferocious and a moral center as a single mother providing for and looking after her four children. She brings a fully fleshed out character to every frame she’s in.
“Playin’ For Love” is an unexpected, welcomed surprise for a date night streaming movie or Redbox pickup. Sure, there are elements of cheese to it, but the backbone of the film is entertaining and I had a few good laughs.
The film is available online and DVD Feb. 9th!