The globe-trotting glitz of American pro basketball is a scarce commodity in tyro helmer Anne Buford’s “Elevate,” a movie about big men and cultural collisions that’s as melancholy as it is exhilarating. In telling the story of her four Senegalese pro hopefuls, Buford clearly set out to make an Afro-centric movie, not necessarily one that positions the NBA as the El Dorado of the Third World. But there’s only so much she can do: Hoop dreams die hard, and the stories in “Elevate” are both sobering and thrilling. Specialty release is possible, sports-oriented TV play a likelihood.
Expertly edited by Mark Becker, Chris White and Richard Hankin, and sparingly scored by Shawn Lee, “Elevate” achieves an understated mood that reflects the temperament of its main characters: unassuming 7-footers Assane Sene and Aziz N’Diaye, and their almost equally gifted Senegalese compatriots Dethie Fall and Byago Diouf. The four are tapped by Seeds (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal), an organization founded by Amadou Gallo Fall, a onetime member of the Dallas Mavericks, and now a scout for the team. The four set forth on a road that holds as many pitfalls as promises.
Buford is not out to demonize anyone or anything: Seeds is clearly a well-intentioned group, and “Elevate” is a movie of muted expectations, the hypnotic glitter of championship rings and network contracts always countered by the sense that perhaps the village back home might be a better place for these kids. While the pic’s cautionary notes might in fact work against it commercially — anyone looking for some kind of romanticized dunk-a-thon will be sorely disappointed — the upshot is honest, the narrative possessed of small tensions and, one senses, incipient calamities.
The young men are put on different tracks, the most poignant, perhaps, being Sene’s. Given a scholarship to basketball-crazed South Kent School in rural Connecticut (where tuition-paying boarders fork over $43,000 a year plus fees), he strikes a curious figure — a humble, giant black African amid short, white, privileged Americans. A Muslim, he is unceremoniously cast into a school with an unreconstructed religious ethos and routine (including mandatory chapel) and looks lost amid the echo of Christian prayer. No one appears to treat Sene any way but kindly, but few seem to have considered what kind of culture shock was awaiting him in America.
Diouf, the shortest of the four at 6’2,” is inexplicably denied a visa at first, and while height may have been a consideration, it would have been good to hear more about exactly why the document was initially denied. N’Diaye, on the other hand, is given a prep-school scholarship and eventually winds up at the U. of Washington, but his sudden on-court knee injury demonstrates just what a tenuous path these young men are on. Fall, who aspires to be a doctor, also is brought to South Kent but struggles academically, and given his innate intelligence (he’s taught himself English already) one senses the unfamiliar system is to blame.
The supporting characters are revealing: Andy Vadnais, the headmaster of South Kent, is solicitous toward Sene to the point of supplication, his feelings toward his towering student born of both fatherliness and perhaps guilt over his school’s difficult fit for the youth. Conversely, there’s Raphael Chillious, the cocky coach of the South Kent team, who mentors Sene, only to quit halfway through the season to take a better job at Nike. To Buford’s credit, she doesn’t belabor the issue, and she doesn’t have to: Sene’s face says it all.
Production values are first-rate, including the lensing team led by d.p. Daniel Vecchione.