Film reviews and more since 2009

Chang Can Dunk (2023) review

Dir. Jingyi Shao

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

Chang Can Dunk is the second of two underdog stories revolving around the sport of basketball, released on the same day (Bobby Farrelly’s Champions being the other). Where Champions committed to the classic rag-tag-team-comes-together-to-outperform-expectations formula, Chang Can Dunk swerves a bit in how it presents its titular character as the hero in the first half and the villain in the second. While perhaps not as successful overall, it does give us a story that’s deeper than what appears on the surface.

The directorial debut of Jingyi Shao revolves around Chang (played effectively by Bloom Li), a 16-year-old, Asian-American high school student. In addition to academics, Chang splits time between marching band and basketball, the latter being the bigger challenge as he is only 5′ 8” tall. He also has a rivalry with Matt (Chase Liefeld), a former friend who has now assumed the thorny crowd of being both the school’s best player as well as the leader of the jocks.

The arrival of a cute new girl in Kristy (Zoe Renee) causes Chang to get even more desperate for respect. By then, Chang’s had enough of Matt’s disrespect too, and bets him his rare Pokémon card — a “shadowless Charizard,” for I know one of you readers will be curious — that he can make a dunk in time for homecoming (12 weeks away). Should he do it, he gets Matt’s Kobe Bryant jersey.

Chang and his pal Bo (Ben Wang) enlist in the help of a YouTuber and former basketball star named Deandre (Dexter Darden) to help him learn how to get the momentum and jumping abilities to win that jersey and the credibility of his peers. At first Deandre is hesitant, but he sees an opportunity to make a web-series out of teaching Chang how to dunk. Let the training commence.

The pivotal moment for Chang comes roughly at the hour-mark of the picture, and it’s not a spoiler to say that he does indeed make the dunk (it’s there in the title, after all). By that point, Deandre’s YouTube videos of Chang have wracked up millions of hits, and the dunk itself goes viral, landing Chang on the ESPN morning show Get Up. After that, the fame rushes to his head, and brushes with basketball stars like Andre Drummond and Richard Jefferson lead Chang to forgetting who made the dunk itself possible.

There’s also a subplot involving Chang’s relationship with his mom (Mardy Ma). Chang’s mother is tightly wound and doesn’t take much of an interest in his exploits, compounding their frosty relationship. As it seems that she will fade into the background, Shao’s third act brings her more into focus, and she herself has a redemptive arc that might catch you by surprise.

Because Shao’s film lets the “dunk” happen earlier than you’d expect, the remaining 50-or-so-minutes of the film are left to freewheel a bit. You get the typical scenes of Chang leaving his friends behind, as well as a confrontation with Matt at school, but for the most part, these moments feel as if they’re padding the film out to be feature-length. The zippiness of the first half feels akin to a Disney Channel Original Movie (or “DCOM” as the cool kids say), and there might be a tighter, better version of Chang Can Dunk if it were retrofitted to be 85-90 minutes with commercials.

Ross Riege does get playful with the film’s photography at times, toggling between cinematic and iPhone camera shots. One gleefully original instance comes when Chang and Deandre are playing in a pickup basketball game. During this sequence, there is a “Chang Swag Meter” at the bottom of the screen, which goes up-and-down depending on Chang’s performance. It’s cute and nifty. More of that could’ve potentially been implemented without sending the film off the rails since this is very much a product of “Gen Z” sensibilities.

Chang Can Dunk is serviceable Disney+ viewing. It’s been a while since we got a noteworthy original film on the platform. Essentially, the streaming service has become a beacon of nostalgia and whatever Star Wars and Marvel “content” Disney will do next. More movies of this breed wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

NOTE: Chang Can Dunk is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.

Starring: Bloom Li, Dexter Darden, Zoe Renee, Ben Wang, Mardy Ma, and Chase Liefeld. Directed by: Jingyi Shao.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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