Writer-director Storm Saulter’s “Sprinter” jogs along a predictable path, but makes a mad dash straight for the audience’s gut right before the finish line. While the narrative about a Rastafarian runner’s star on the rise blessedly doesn’t utilize emotionally manipulative devices or contrivance to make its sentiments heard, it generically adheres to the sports movie playbook. The hero’s meteoric ascent, fall from grace, and inevitable comeback is a formula that’s been done before. However, setting it against the backdrop of real social issues like immigration and the lack of local economic opportunity enhances the immediacy. It’s heartfelt in its delivery, but not a totally unique offering.
Akeem Sharp (Dale Elliot) was dealt a major blow early on when his mother Donna (Lorraine Toussaint) left Jamaica to find work in the United States to help support their family. Her stay was only supposed to last two years, but 10 years later, Donna is stuck in a vicious cycle of working on a long-expired work visa to send money back home. The hardship of losing Akeem’s mom has driven older brother Germaine (Kadeem Wilson) to unruly behavior, running a lottery scam and treating women as sex objects. Their father Garfield (Dennis Titus) has also not dealt with the separation very well, abusing alcohol to numb his sorrow. Fortunately, Akeem has remained relatively unscathed as a track-and-field sensation and a prized pupil at his high school.
Akeem idolizes Germaine, whose own track career was curtailed by injury, and hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps. His dream is to become his school’s next 200-meter dash champion, get a scholarship to a school in the U.S., and reunite with his mother. His winning streak catch not only the eye of flirty classmate Mira (Shak-Quera South), but also the attention of the news media, who come looking to distract him from his goals. None of this exactly thrills his caring, concerned Coach (David Allen Grier).
Despite Akeem’s efforts to maintain focus, turmoil at home threatens to derail his career. Mom is available to chat over Skype less frequently, and Dad is physically lashing out at Akeem. Germaine, seething with jealousy over his younger brother’s skyrocketing career, takes advantage of his trust. He gives Akeem bad advice to go professional instead of staying in school and shows him the seductive side of getting rich quick, including nightly parties at big homes filled with hot girls and flashy cars. He also sabotages Akeem’s future by not mailing important school transfer paperwork. Akeem’s positive perseverance isn’t permanent — at least, not until he’s forced to mature.
What makes the proceedings interesting are the intricately fashioned, multi-dimensional characters and their often-cloaked personality facets: Garfield is breaking down trying to keep things together, to the extent that he crumbles. Donna’s selflessness has distanced her from Akeem. Germaine might be beyond reproach, yet he’s allowed a little redemption after he reveals his protective-albeit-misguided motives to Akeem. They’re all three-dimensional, and the performances by the ensemble reflect their nuance and depth.
Saulter bookends his feature with imagery indicating our protagonist’s lost and regained sense of freedom. Through the difficult years of separation, Akeem clings to a happy childhood memory of gathering seashells with his mother, feeling the ocean water and sandy beach beneath his feet. That memory fades in his young adulthood, but hope surges back on the track during the climactic race. In that uplifting sequence, prior pep talks from Coach, who advises Akeem to wear mental blinders, and teammate Kerry (Shantol Jackson), who encourages him to run for no one but himself, bear inspirational fruit: Though the stands are full and Akeem is flanked by competitors, he sees the stadium as empty, and himself running alone, free once more. The confluence of the visuals and sound, with cheers swelling in symphony with Joseph Trapanese’s score, elicits the kind of exuberant glee emblematic of so many great sports films.
The character-driven action is showcased primarily through the protagonist’s point of view. Saulter and cinematographer Pedro Gómez Millán capture culture through music, vibrant use of color, and food. Akeem’s perspective is portrayed through the film’s aesthetics, whether it be the captivating neon of the dance clubs (with saturated greens and yellows reflective of the Jamaican flag), or the comforting, peppy blue accents in the Los Angeles stadium. Couple this imagery with a Jamaican dancehall soundtrack and it gives the picture a pulsating energy.