Chang Can Dunk Is a Slam Dunk

The “coming-of-age” genre usually produces a mixed bag of things to chew on, many of them worthy of spitting back out because they are pure junk.

Our culture sucks at helping kids grow up well. We teach them how to burn themselves out physically and emotionally before they are even in their 20s. We teach them to place their identities in fragile, superficial things. We teach them far too early about sex (often a toxic version of it) but not about true love and creating healthy relationships. We drive a wedge between children and their parents and then wonder why both fall apart. We give kids unrealistic expectations for life and misplaced priorities and then watch them unravel over time. We encourage children to do foolish, bad things and then act like holding them accountable is wrong (FYI, that’s not how the adult world works, so we are setting them up for a fall).

We glorify trauma at a level that waters genuine trauma down and also extends the power trauma has over children’s lives. We over hype life’s BIG moments but fail to cast a vision for the long journey that life is.

And unfortunately, coming-of-age movies usually add fuel to the fire…but occasionally, a gem of a movie comes along.

Chang Can Dunk is exactly what a coming-of-age movie should be.

Chang, a 16-year-old Asian American, bets the highschool basketball star that he can dunk by homecoming. The bet leaves 5’8′ Chang on a quest to learn to dunk–not only to impress his crush Kristy, but gain the respect of his highschool peers as well. But before he can rise up and truly throw one down, he’ll have to re-examine everything he knows about himself, his friendships, and his family.

Disney+ film description

I had seen a trailer a few months back and thought it might be cute but not necessarily memorable. Instead, I found myself gripped on a human level by the simple story of a kid who believes if he can just dunk a basketball, his life will change for the better. The story is simple, but the portrayal, meaning, and themes are rich and deep. We watch a kid learn what it means to grow up and grow up well. You come away from the movie having learned something and feeling encouraged, a rarity for movies in this genre.

Chang is a relatable hero if a flawed one. His dysfunctional relationship with his mother is one that can ring true for many families. His friends are genuinely positive relationships that shape and guide him throughout his story. His absent father is a subtle, never-seen character in the movie, but his lack of presence is felt in both the lives of Chang and his mother. That being said, his character is also shaped by an incredible mentor figure who gives him wisdom and guidance when he needs it the most.

Chang’s life and perspective are shaped by both lack and blessing. You see him rise high, and you see him fall hard. It’s sometimes a painful and even intense experience. These harsher moments are balanced out by moments of light humor, life-giving conversations, and actions of love and redemption.

This movie surprised me with the layers of depth and symbolism they wove into the story and characters. Plot threads were laid down well and followed through. The character arcs were realistic and messy in how they were lived out, but graceful and triumphant in their resolve.

If I went into every detail of this movie that I found beautiful, this article would be ridiculously long, and I would spoil the whole story. Instead, I will give you the highlight reel.

Chang is faced with many obstacles. He overcomes them, but not without facing failure, the death of some of his expectations and beliefs, and even a miserable amount of humiliation. This movie is more honest about what it looks like to fall, but the great part is watching how Chang gets back up. He accepts his lessons with humility, and he receives the wisdom offered to him by his friends, mentor, and even his mother. He does not park his life in his pain and failures (a terrible lesson we are unfortunately teaching many young people) instead, he grows through them and perseveres until things do get better. We watch Chang grow in character and in peace with both himself and others.

Chang’s mother is not likable for most of the movie, sometimes she is wrong and that is clearly shown. But rather than just painting her as a straight-up villain like many coming-of-age stories, we are also given a compassionate view of her broken heart, as well as the guilt she carries over her failures. She’s shrinking down to nothing inside, and she doesn’t know what to do. She and Chang spend much of the movie at odds with each other, but progress is made when they choose to love, forgive, and turn toward each other. This movie actually paints positive parent-child relationships as a necessary and desired part of life. How refreshing!

Chang’s friends are supportive of him, but also honest. The girl he likes, Kristy, has a healthy self-esteem and identity that is separate from being “the pretty girl everyone is interested in”. She encourages him in his relationship with his mother and also calls him out on the carpet about his crap. His best friend Bo supports him with his time and belief in him and is a good sounding board.

Chang’s mentor speaks life, wisdom, and affirmation throughout the movie. His powerful words of grace and gratitude put to shame the cheap, superficial jargon about small dreams, self-obsession, and empty goals many other movies of this genre have. He sees who Chang is, and who Chang will be, and he actively helps him on the journey of becoming that person. He is for Chang what his mother is struggling to be, and what his father won’t be.

Chang’s great moment of humiliation is intense and miserable, but you are shown that this awful experience is not the end of his life (we need to stop teaching kids this, it’s literally killing some of them)…in fact, this moment for him is the beginning of something deeper and richer. By the time you reach the end of the movie, you see a dream come alive that’s bigger than just dunking a ball. You see Chang for who he was made to be, and it is beautiful. He has grown, and we have grown with him.

If you are looking for a movie that will actually encourage your children to grow and thrive, Chang Can Dunk will do that. Don’t waste your time on the fluff and filth many other “classic” coming-of-age movies have to offer, go straight for the meat.

I recommend this movie for children aged upper elementary through high school for the intense emotions and light language (there are a few uses of hell, damn, and oh-my-g**). A teenage boy and girl share long kiss alone in a darker room (at about one hour into the movie). They are fully clothed and nothing extra is implied. We see public humiliation and bullying as well as the beginning of a physical fight between two teenage boys who we see are bruised after the fact.

This movie can be enjoyed by all people, but I think moms and dads will especially appreciate the topics this movie covers. Chang Can Dunk presents a wonderful opportunity to launch some powerful discussions with your children about life, perseverance, and relationships.

10/10, Change Can Dunk was a slam dunk.

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