While primarily for those who are already fans of Steph Curry, this documentary does some deconstructing that offers something for everyone.
When you sit down for a film like the Apple TV+ and A24 documentary Stephen Curry: Underrated, there will always be a question about what perspective it is going to offer. There are plenty of such works about famous people that primarily serve to talk about how great they are. In doing so, they can smooth out any struggles they may have had to focus entirely on the successes that would have probably already made them a person to have a documentary made about in the first place. Even in a best-case scenario, they can feel like only superficial looks at a life and person without offering any greater depth beyond the image they are comfortable putting forth. Whenever a documentary is given access to a subject to interview them, their family, and their friends, the worst thing that can happen is that it starts to feel like a thinly veiled public relations documentary that seeks to bolster their brand.
What makes this latest documentary from director Peter Nicks different is how it takes time to sit with the failures and go just a bit deeper. Even recurring interviews with talking heads—a staple of the form that can easily become overly congratulatory—offers something that feels more honest. While it can get somewhat stuck looking back without offering as much insight into the present, there is much to appreciate in the focus that it brings to the material.
For all the ways that it will primarily appeal to most of those who have followed Curry already, there is also something more it offers to those that may not be familiar with the athlete at all. Hell, even if you’re less than a fan of him because he has beaten your favorite team there may be something that you appreciate in learning a bit more about him. Following his early years of basketball through college that parallels with the present, it avoids the trap of trying to cover everything and encapsulates how key moments in Curry’s life continue to inform his career.
Primarily, this takes the form of him missing over and over again. In many of his early games at Davidson College, Curry really struggled to get in a rhythm and committed a whole lot of turnovers as opposed to the deep threes he is known for today. There even is a moment where his coaches that are interviewed discussed how they considered benching him. It is a prospect that Nicks leaves dangling as we wonder if that would have been the end right then and there. While we obviously know that it wasn’t, the way the film doesn’t shy away from his early struggles shows how they could have prevented us from ever knowing who Curry was. The film then establishes explicit parallels between when he was making a run for the championship in college and most recently when he would go on to win in the NBA. By eschewing a conventional chronological timeline that can start to feel like a Wikipedia entry in documentary form, Nicks establishes how the two moments in time are not all that different.
While the stage may be bigger, the game is the same and the way we see Curry playing in the present day is clearly an echo of how he was building his skills at a younger age. This takes the form of several cuts that serve as a bridge between these two timelines. The moves he will make or the shots he will take are spliced together, making it feel as if he is just still the same kid from all those years ago. They are almost mirror images of each other and the way they end up reflecting each other is really sharp filmmaking. For all the ways it establishes information via interview subjects, who do discuss Curry with a candidness that is refreshing, the most interesting parts come from a well-timed cut between two moments. It ensures that they then remain forever bound together in our minds even as they are many years apart.
This idea is further expanded upon when we see him trying to finish completing the classes necessary to get his degree as he had left college to enter the NBA before he could do so. When Curry talks about playing intense games of basketball in college and then needing to spend time going to class, he could just as easily be talking about himself in the present day. There is obviously a clear difference in that he now goes through rigorous training with people dedicated just to him, but the emotions that underpin it all in his day-to-day life remain familiar. Once you reach a certain level, the competition and drive remain largely the same.
There is a sense that much of this connection to the present gets lost when the documentary dives headfirst into Curry leading his college team on a run through the playoffs. We get details of the games with how they had to come from behind multiple times that avoids falling into being merely a highlight reel as it establishes just how much of a battle each game was. Perhaps this is why Nicks largely glosses over how the Warriors won in 2022 as it never ended up being quite as close for Curry once he took over the series. There remain some of those cuts that bring the two parts of his life together in engaging ways, but the sense of focus on the present largely feels tacked on at the end when it could have been more fleshed out.
This doesn’t doom the documentary by any means. Rather, it just takes it down a couple notches as it feels like there was a little bit too much emphasis on the past that we lost sight of some of the other potentially interesting elements of the present. Thankfully, even with some missteps, Nicks has still created something unique in his latest that ensures it moves beyond mere documentary mythmaking into something more multifaceted as a character study of Curry and the road he took to become one of the greatest basketball players ever.
Stephen Curry: Underrated debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.