The high school-college-pros feeder athletics system

Netflix is releasing new movies direct to its streaming site at a rate of about one or two a week, and despite the acclaim garnered by some of its earlier projects, it is not skewing toward quality. “Throw everything at the ceiling and see what sticks” seems to be the ruling approach. From that inauspicious breeding ground comes Amateur, a social media–infused spin on the old underdog sports story.

Number blindness poses challenges on the court as well—how does a point guard who can’t read the shot clock or the scoreboard control the flow of the game?

Eighth grader Terron Forte is one of hundreds of thousands of kids with NBA dreams and a playground hoops reality. His father (a failed NFL prospect) gives him a leg up by posting his highlights online, garnering the interest of a prep program, which could be Terron’s ticket to better coaching and bigger visibility to NCAA scouts. Complicating matters is his deeply private struggle with dyscalculia, or number blindness, a kind of learning disability the film portrays by making numbers shift and change like a digital clock on the fritz. His mother stresses the importance of education and college, but for Terron, who takes videos of his classes and labors over counting aids at home, basketball seems a far more realistic dream.

But number blindness poses challenges on the court as well—how does a point guard who can’t read the shot clock or the scoreboard control the flow of the game? Add to that the potential pitfalls in the modern version of big-time amateur sports—the sponsorship deals, the social media exposure, and the expensive, “forbidden, but everyone does it” gifts from boosters—and Terron needs every bit of his fancy footwork to keep from being trampled.

Ultimately, Amateur is something of a fairy tale for hoops fans, a ride that requires viewers to buy into the notion that Terron is indeed a phenomenally talented future basketball star. The film works hard to sell this point, with middling results. As Terron, Michael Rainey Jr. certainly moves right on the court, and executes shots that look impressive enough, but he is so dwarfed by the height of other players that even his potential for height from his tall parents makes the praise of his coach (Josh Charles) and so many other basketball experts seem premature.

The film is far more successful at grinding its chosen axe: the hypocrisy of the NCAA. Major collegiate sports like football and basketball are a billion-dollar enterprise in America today, with money from TV deals and merchandising printed on the backs of the young men and women who actually play the game. Yet those athletes can’t be seen to earn a dime beyond their scholarship to college—an education that many don’t get to take advantage of because their grueling practice schedule takes precedence over going to class. Amateur portrays this bind as trickling down to the high-powered basketball prep schools as well—something I have no trouble believing. And since so many of these young athletes feel a real need to support their families, is it any wonder that some succumb to the temptation to accept backdoor deals?

Of all the titles Netflix has churned out recently, Amateur is one of the better ones—good for an impulse viewing on a night you want something to watch but don’t know what to choose. Even better if you’re a sports fan. I appreciate the attempt to shed light on how early a child can be influenced by the rapacious tentacles of the high school-college-pros feeder system and the need to appear “amateur” to satisfy the NCAA’s draconian rules. I could have done without the crude language some adult characters exchange with teens from time to time, but I suppose that’s part of the scene in most athletics. The sensitive portrayal of a learning disability and parents doing their best to support their son make up for that fault. Amateur, like Terron, finds a way to work around its shortcomings.

Amateur is rated TV-MA for vulgar language.