“Chang Can Dunk,” a funny and thoughtful high school comedy streaming on Disney+, exists at the intersection between jockdom and nerdery: If you know both the approximate value of a mint-condition Charizard Pokémon card and how to identify a pair of Nike Bruce Lee Kobe 5 Protos on sight, you’re sure to feel on solid footing.
Chang (Bloom Li) is a dorky teen with grandiose dreams of N.B.A. superstardom. Tired of being humiliated by his rival classmate Matt (Chase Liefeld), the school’s arrogant point-guard Übermensch, Chang makes him a daring wager: In 10 weeks, he’ll dunk on a regulation 10-foot net. At a modest 5 feet 8 inches, Chang won’t be able to throw down a monster jam with ease. But he subscribes to the Kobe Bryant mind-set, in which, as he explains to his paramour, Kristy (Zoe Renee), “every obstacle is an opportunity.” Or, as Michael Jordan might put it: Matt slighted Chang, and he took that personally.
The pursuit of this ambition puts “Chang Can Dunk” in familiar sports-movie territory for a time, as Chang seeks guidance from an amiable coach (Dexter Darden) who prescribes a strenuous regimen of back-squatting, deadlifting and slamming protein shakes, most of which we see in charmingly upbeat montage. But around the film’s midway point, the writer-director Jingyi Shao makes a sudden and intriguing pivot, complicating the story and, in the process, subverting a number of tired pseudo-inspirational clichés.
As Chang’s quest is sidelined and the young athlete is forced to look inward, the emphasis of the movie shifts from winning at all costs to the quiet, unglamorous work that makes winners in the first place — a rousing and considered tribute to honest effort over spectacular results that would have made Bryant himself proud.
Chang Can Dunk
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on Disney+.