“Chang Can Dunk” doesn’t go the way you’d expect, and that’s a good thing. Here’s a Disney movie about a 5-foot-8-inch Chinese American high school basketball player who bets his rival that he can dunk by the end of the season. He gets his wish about an hour in (that’s neither spoiler nor surprise, since the title literally tells us that Chang can dunk), but there’s still a long way for the character to go — and grow — in a film that believes maturity isn’t achieved by shortcuts.
The result marks the attention-worthy debut of writer-director Jingyi Shao, and exemplifies the sort of movies Disney should be making: It has its values in the right place, but doesn’t pretend its hero is perfect. If there’s a villain in “Chang Can Dunk,” that role is arguably filled by the title character (tenaciously embodied by Bloom Li, who keeps us wondering how to feel about Chang). In time, the obsessive teen’s ultra-competitive personality winds up alienating practically everyone in his life, except demanding single mom Chen (an excellent Mardy Ma), whose tough-love approach only amplifies his resentment.
But first the bet: At school, Chang can’t stand how others see him — basically, as a geek, splitting his attention between drum line and basketball. When new girl Kristy (Zoe Renee) shows up, he’s instantly smitten and more than a little desperate to get her attention, but predictably peeved when his childhood buddy Matt (Chase Liefeld), now king of the jock squad, swoops in and invites her to a party. Judging by Chang’s short-fuse reactions, Matt has been chipping away at his self-confidence for a while now. Instead of being the bigger man, Chang snaps, swearing to any who will listen that he can improve his vertical jump in 12 weeks’ time.
This being 2023, there are plenty of witnesses to the wager, recording everything on their camera phones while Chang loses his cool. The bet makes for an interesting twist on the classic Disney setup, in which lead characters clearly express the “I want” desires that drive them: Chang wants to dunk, but more than that, he wants to get back at the popular kids who underestimated him. While the hip-hop soundtrack gives added fuel to Chang’s swagger, the deeper-than-it-looks movie also challenges whether this is a healthy way for Chang to deal with his insecurities.
Drawing on his own Chinese American heritage, the director brings Chang’s second-generation immigrant identity into the mix. That adds fresh dimension to the character. Chang has been picked on for so long, he tends to assume the worst about others’ treatment of him, reading racism into what may well be benign exchanges. But even there, the dynamic isn’t as simplistic as in so many anti-bullying movies. Matt’s popular and handsome and comes from a wealthier family than Chang’s, but he’s not malicious, whereas there’s a mean streak underlying the way that Chang wants to show him up, and both Kristy and tech-savvy sidekick Bo (Ben Wang) pick up on it.
These two encourage their friend at first, helping him find a “coach” — a sketchy dude named Deandre (Dexter Darden) who could’ve gone pro — and making flashy videos of Chang’s progress. But once their friend makes the shot, the glory and attention go to his head, and they pretty quickly decide they’ve had enough of “Chang 2.0.” It should be said that Renee makes Kristy far more interesting than a mere “love interest”; she’s nobody’s trophy.
Working with Hillman Grad producers Rishi Rajani and Lena Waithe, Shao presents a complex and at times off-putting protagonist in Chang. Sure, he easily grabs our sympathy early on — the guy’s the underdog after all — but once his ego swells and certain character flaws come to light, the movie obliges us to see things differently. That’s a refreshing departure from other films’ insistence on having a “likable” lead, and one that yields a richer moral conundrum overall.
After an argument between Chang and Matt escalates into a physical altercation, the school principal calls their parents, at which point, the strained relationship between Chang and his Mandarin-speaking mother evolves from being a mere subplot to one of the movie’s strongest aspects. Until then, Chang has kept Chen out of his business, so she’s surprised to discover how much of her son’s life he’s been hiding from her. Chang has a lot of repair work to do in the second half of the movie, and Shao ensures that the character earns his redemption. Like many a Disney character before him, Chang dreams big, but in the end, he has to reach that goal on his own.