Chang (Bloom Li) is the typical high school kid: smitten with young love and lust, concerned with his hair, and constantly at odds with his mom. After getting into an argument with Matt (Chase Liefeld), a former friend of Chang’s from middle school and current star of the school’s basketball team, the two make a bet: if Chang can dunk a basketball, he gets Matt’s Kobe Bryant jersey (a personal hero of Chang’s); if Chang can’t dunk, Matt gets Chang’s Charizard Pokemon card worth upwards of $3,000. Also, the winner gets to shave the head of the loser in front of everyone.
Much of Chang Can Dunk’s runtime follows Chang’s training with Deandrea (Dexter Darden), a basketball coach Chang found on YouTube who also happens to work at a Verizon store during the day. Supported by his best friend Bo (Ben Wang) and the new girl in school — and the apple of Chang’s eye — Kristy (Zoe Renee), Chang shows a dedication and commitment to learning how to dunk in 10 short weeks.
Chang Can Dunk showcases some solid performances from its young cast. Li, Wang, and Renee have an easy chemistry with each other, with Wang in particular coming away with a well-rounded performance. As for the grown ups, Darden and Mardy Ma, who plays Chang’s mom, are the heart and soul of the film. Their turns are two sides of the same coin, and when they come together for one scene, I was left wanting to see an entire sitcom about their interactions.
The film is the 2023 version of a Disney after-school special, and it hits all the buttons those types of movies command; however, it never succumbs to the tropes. There are times the film becomes sentimental, but never cloying; it has some corny moments, but they never jump the shark. And of course, there are lessons to be passed around, but none are ever beaten over your head.
Where Chang Can Dunk intrigues is in its mature storytelling that I don’t particularly look for in a film like this (and that’s just my own bias showing). Director and writer Jingyi Shao weaves a sophisticated web of storytelling not often seen in movies with the "straight to Disney+" label. A great example is in the set up of Chang's relationship with the movie's assumed antagonist, Matt.
Not too much information is given about why Matt and Chang’s relationship changed. We see when Chang goes to Matt’s house for a party that he and Matt’s little brother are friendly and their moms are familiar with each other. There's an understanding that Chang, while harbouring a deep passion for basketball, has turned his attention to the school's marching band instead. Whereas, Matt has gone on to become a basketball star with a letterman jacket. A brief but touching moment towards the end of the film shows the foundation of their friendship is still intact. And perhaps, much like in real life, these two boys don't need to speak extensively about their past issues. Rather, after having it out with each other, they have quietly made amends.
It's a smaller detail in the grand scheme of the film, but it's indicative of a filmmaker with a strong vision and a deft storytelling hand. While a formidable entry into the YA genre, Shao's skills, the ensemble's rounded performances, and interesting themes elevates Chang Can Dunk into a delightful surprise — offering more than initially expected.
Chang Can Dunk is streaming on Disney+.