Peter Nicks’ documentary Stephen Curry: Underrated, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, begins with NBA Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller reading from a withering scouting report for Stephen Curry. The report, written about the Davidson star ahead of the NBA draft, questions Curry’s athleticism, his size and his ability to withstand the physicality of the professional game.
Nearly two hours later, the documentary ends with Miller hailing the way Curry and his style of play single-handedly changed the NBA.
Stephen Curry: Underrated
The Bottom Line
Refreshingly offbeat, if insufficiently focused.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Director: Peter Nicks
1 hour 50 minutes
Based on those bookends, it’s easy to predict every beat of Underrated. One might assume this will be yet another film about an athlete who was able to parlay a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude into greatness, complete with a predictable assortment of talking heads including various members of the Warriors dynasty, perhaps a legend or two and regular appearances from Curry’s wife, Ayesha, for humanizing.
Underrated turns out not to be that documentary at all. Curry’s fellow Warriors stars are mostly absent, though Draymond Green pops up via FaceTime when their respective alma maters face off in the NCAA Tournament. Miller is the only NBA legend to be found, and he only appears in those two segments. While Ayesha Curry is a general presence, in the background of domestic shots and audible in phone conversation, she isn’t a direct-to-camera part of the documentary at all.
The best illustration I can give for how completely Underrated probably isn’t the documentary you’re expecting is that the first 12 seasons of Curry’s NBA career are boiled down to a montage that doesn’t last longer than three minutes.
So if Underrated isn’t the ESPN-friendly soup-to-nuts documentary that you’re expecting, what exactly is it? That’s a little harder to explain.
Though the 34-year-old star has, as the doc makes clear, been overlooked and underestimated his whole life, the film looks at his desire to prove doubters wrong in two stages of his life. The present tense follows Curry’s eventful 2021-22 season, which saw him break the NBA record for career three-pointers, but also saw the Warriors stumble through a rough swing that brought skeptics out of the woodwork for the usual glib dismissals about how Curry and the team were past their peak. Here, the documentary eschews standard talking heads and gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective on unseen moments — the celebratory dinner after his record-breaking game features at least one guest appearance that will excite basketball fans — and behind-the-scenes snapshots of Curry’s arduous workouts and time with his three kids.
As for the past, the documentary presents a reasonably comprehensive and much more conventionally told look at his youth, his time as a barely recruited high school player and then, particularly, his time at Davidson. The Davidson years are really the meat of the documentary, featuring appearances by teammates and coaches, led by Bob McKillop, whose belief in Curry was clearly formative.
What bridges the two segments isn’t the bulk of Curry’s NBA career — those two MVPs and three previous titles might as well not have existed — but rather the fact that in 2022, Steph Curry finally graduated from Davidson, much to his mother Sonya’s pleasure.
One could argue that Nicks’ choice of focus puts a degree on the same plane of achievement as an Elite Eight run in college basketball or an NBA title, another thing that people doubted he could do. We see Curry having multiple Zoom conversations with a faculty advisor and, in one very sweet scene, struggling to properly craft a proposal for his thesis at the same table where his daughters are doing their homework, while his son jumps around popping bubble-wrap. This focus on education and vérité formalism almost parallels Nicks’ last Sundance documentary, 2021’s Homeroom. But only almost.
Although we learn that Curry’s thesis relates to the under-representation of women in sports, it’s odd how little of his personal commitment to the cause appears in the documentary. For a while, the completion of his degree is important to Curry and to the documentary, but then it’s pushed to the background so that we can see 10 minutes of clips from various playoff series that took place less than a year ago. The documentary is much better when we’re seeing the less-familiar sides of Curry that come courtesy of Nicks’ access — this includes a treasure trove of home-movie footage from youth basketball and high school — than just highlights I could watch on SportsCenter.
There are comparable gaps in the Young Steph portion of the documentary. Underrated doesn’t try to pretend that Curry’s father wasn’t a well-respected NBA veteran, but it definitely underplays the privilege of his upbringing. His parents’ athletic background is conveyed in almost a footnote mentioning that Curry wanted to follow in their footsteps at Virginia Tech, but the Hokies didn’t recruit him — which feeds the underdog narrative better than, “Boy, if you have a poorly formed jump-shot, it really helps to be tutored by a dad who made a good living as a high-percentage shooter.”
Maybe Nicks left some things out because he felt they were too familiar, and I respect Underrated particularly for not being the easiest and most expected form of Stephen Curry hero worship. The documentary that it chooses to be instead has appeal but, in the rush to get it onto screens before the next time somebody dares underestimate Curry, perhaps it lacks sufficient refinement.