Basketball road trip, via Senegal
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Nov 11, 2011
There's more than a state championship title on the line for the high school basketball players at the center of Anne Buford's documentary "Elevate."
The four Senegalese teens here are more concerned with providing for their families, and the best way to do that is to land a scholarship to an American prep school in the hopes that it might lead to college hoops and the NBA.
As the film opens, the four 16- and 17-years-olds, three of whom hover around the 7-foot mark, are students at SEEDS Academy in Senegal. The small school is geared toward basketball-playing student athletes and founded by Dallas Mavericks scouting director (and Senegal native) Amadou Gallo Fall.
After a chance meeting with a Peace Corps volunteer landed Fall a college basketball scholarship, he decided to pay his luck forward by returning to his homeland and putting African teens on a similarly fortuitous track. This path - success, followed by aiding one's compatriots - seems to be the dream of the four teens. They also appear less interested in making a name for themselves than being positive African ambassadors.
This selflessness makes them easy to root for in the face of so many obstacles, including (according to the film) high school enrollment rates that barely top 20 percent and a national literacy rate of 42 percent.
Sports movies have a tendency to pull the old heart strings, but this is an especially emotional journey. When one teen receives word that he has been approved for a visa to travel to America and claim his spot at a Connecticut prep school, he openly weeps.
The film also does an effective job at offering a look at the United States through the eyes of a newcomer. As one subject lands at JFK Airport (coatless during winter) and drives through New York City, the camera shots, which alternate between the teen's awestruck expression and the city skyscrapers, offer viewers a fresh vision of the bustle. Meanwhile, the frustration and fear of communicating in an unfamiliar language is enough to make anyone jittery.
But the fish-out-of-water scenario also leads to some laughs, as when one boy takes his first spin behind the wheel of a car and another tries to grasp the rules of American football.
There are moments when the character portraits seem superficial, which may be the result of trying to pack four personalities into a little more than 80 minutes. Nevertheless, it's an inspiring tale that follows four kids who are wise beyond their years and driven beyond comprehension.
Contains brief profanity. In French, English and Wolof with English subtitles.