Elevate opens to unmistakable images of basketball in the developing world: a stretched yellow tape measure, a rickety scale, a gaunt 7-foot silhouette throwing it down in the moonlight. But the movie, which opens in limited release on Friday, succeeds precisely because the lens of director Anne Buford doesn't dwell on the anatomical. While African prospects are so often reduced to Jay Bilas--isms (Wingspan! Length! Motor!), Buford provides a complete portrait of four Senegalese players whose self-assessments as they work toward a hoops future in the U.S. are as candid as any scout's. "I'm not strong," says 7-foot Assane, 16. "I'm slow," admits the similarly statured Aziz, 17. "I have trouble dribbling," says 6'9" Dethie, 17. Then there's 6'2" Byago, 17, whom we see sobbing after his U.S. student visa has been denied. "Shattered dreams," a family member explains.
It is no spoiler to note that Elevate's quartet is far more talented than such appraisals would suggest. Assane, Aziz and Dethie make the leap from Dakar's SEEDS Academy—a boarding school started in 2003 by a former Mavs scout—to some of America's elite prep schools. There, amid so much culture shock, the teens are reminded that they represent not only themselves but also their families, their country and all of Africa. "Your job is to succeed so you can go back and show other kids who want to come here how to do it," a South Kent (Conn.) coach tells Assane after scolding him for two C pluses. "Any questions?"
Yes, actually, there are plenty. See, for example, Aziz, at Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy, learning what a hot dog is, smack in the middle of Ramadan. But by film's end, success is on the horizon. We learn that two of the four players have earned high-major basketball scholarships—and that because the film was shot over a period of four years, we may have already even seen them on TV. From now on, thanks to Buford, these young men will never look the same.