Swagger scores with unflinching look at personal problems [Apple TV+ review]

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Swagger review: Crystal (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) and Jace (Isaiah Hill) deal with some rough stuff this week.
Crystal (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) and Jace (Isaiah Hill) deal with some rough stuff this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

This week on Swagger, Jace and Crystal come clean — but now what? She’s rent with guilt and pain. He wants to do something, but answers won’t come to him. Meanwhile, family troubles abound for Meg and Phil. And violence seems to be unavoidable in the game and on the streets.

Can Ike save this team and the community around it from itself? Money tends to speak louder than loyalty but Ike’s playing the long game and it might not pay off. The Apple TV+ drama about a Baltimore junior basketball league’s misfit team scores high this week.

Swagger review: ’24-Hour Person’

In the episode, titled “24-Hour Person,” Crystal (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) finally tells Jace (Isaiah R. Hill) about the misdeeds of Coach Warrick (Al Mitchell), with the caveat that Jace can’t tell anyone. They’re both enormously conflicted. Crystal can scarcely get through the day and now Jace has to keep her secret, which makes him surly and despondent.

She’s barely hanging on as it is. Her grades are slipping, her performance on the court is imperfect, and she’s developed a bad relationship with her parents. There’s a truly beautiful moment in the first 10 minutes of the episode where she’s walking down her street, seeing families and kids pass, oblivious to the loveliness of the neighborhood. Then Jace appears silently next to her and walks with her to a place where they can talk. He’s finally truly back in her corner.

This stuff makes up the bulk of the episode, which is good thinking, tough as it is to watch. It bleeds into practice, too. He blows his first session with Nick Mendez (Jason Rivera), looking like a sore loser when they have to work together. And that gets Nick rethinking his decision to join the team.

Jace can’t tell anyone about Coach Warrick abusing Crystal and it’s tearing him up inside, beyond making him useless on the court. Jace hits upon a solution, but it’s not one that’s going to be very productive. He understandably wants to do something that won’t break Crystal’s confidence — but he won’t do nothing.

Good lookin’ out

Ike Edwards (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) finally meets Alonzo (Tristan Mack Wilds), the shoe executive who wants to sponsor youth leagues, in a barbershop. It’s an incredible little scene — the Greek chorus of the barbershop reads Alonzo the riot act about his role in turning kids into consumers. Alonzo shows his hand by saying he’s still sponsoring Nick’s old team. Alonzo doesn’t know Coach Bobby (Marc Blucas) blew it with Nick and his mom, causing him to join up with Ike’s Swagger kids. A victory for Ike at last. He’ll need that energy for later…

Ike also needs to sell Jace and his mom, Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh), on Nick joining the team. He and his wife, Tonya (Christina Jackson), have organized a dinner party to give them the soft sell. Jace is in a contemplative mood so he agrees but Jenna isn’t so sure.

Across town, Phil (Solomon Irama) and Drew (James Bingham) have a sleepover. Drew is obscenely wealthy compared to Phil, but they have a nice time, despite Phil and Drew lying to his parents about Phil’s mom being in jail. Drew notices Phil has bruising not accounted for by the rough team play and suspects his dad is beating him.

Phil doesn’t say for sure, but the moment they have where they recognize that they care about each other is stunning. This team really does care about each other, no matter their tribulations. In fact when Jace is visibly frustrated because of Crystal’s situation during practice Phil is the only person who understands what Jace is going through when he tells him that he has a friend who’s being hurt and he can’t help because … well, the same thing is happening to him. It puts the two of them in each other’s head spaces in time for Jace to tell his friends his plan of action.

Meg (Tessa Ferrer) has breakfast with her estranged father (Matt Riedy). His cancer has returned and he wants to be able to say some things out loud. She’s not receptive. When she was a young player, he was a coach at West Point and he never turned up for her when he needed her. He can’t change that, but would she be interested in his playbooks from when he was a coach for 35 years? Everyone’s heroes are disappointing them left and right.

All about honesty

I really, really love that Swagger is as honest as it can be about the ups and downs of the social circle of the team. Jenna has no trouble acting in ways that make her seem selfish and scheming, because she can fall back on the excuse that she’s doing everything for her son. Ike knows he can sometimes seem the same way, but he also knows deep down that there may be no one acting as altruistically with any influence on these kid’s lives.

Jace’s character serves as a great case study in how to write a lead. His mumbling, fumbling, everyday lack of grace as a teen is highly believable, and the writers still manage to work in satisfying dramatic beats in the arc of a kid doing things any kid would in special circumstances.

Here he gets a moment of pride and a moment of vain, violent weakness as he finally gets over himself enough to become Crystal’s confidant once more. But his response to it is to endanger his and his teammates’ futures in a very serious, adult way. He’s crawling blindly toward maturity and still has the impulsiveness of a kid with everything to prove.

Watch Swagger on Apple TV+

New episodes of Swagger arrive every Friday on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.