By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 20, 2011 at 2:45AM
"The rest of the world views us as lazy," says a coach to teen basketball aspirants at the SEEDS Academy, a boarding school in Dakar, Senegal. "You have to be our ambassadors." The pressure is on, but none of the young subjects followed by first-time documentarian Anne Buford in "Elevate" know if they can deliver.
Shipped to classy American schools to continue their assimilation, the ensemble works and plays hard to carve a path to the NBA. The journey is heartfelt. However, it's less comprehensive than the material calls for, which makes the cumulative effect little more than "Hoop Dreams"-lite.
By starting her story in Senegal before following a handful of players to the U.S., Buford sets the stage for sharp contrasts. In their native country, where only some 21% of the population graduates from high school, the prospects of journeying abroad sounds utopian. The lucky few who take the trip, however, devolve into fish out of water.
Star players on their home courts, they assume an alien presence on upscale, Christian-certified campuses in Illinois and Connecticut. Towering over their teammates, they not only stand out in the crowd but also face insurmountable demands. College scouts and academic advisors watch closely over the players' progress and constantly remind them of the high standards placed on their performances.
Have these ambitious young men become pawns of a system that will soon spit them out? Buford can't really tell. She observes their on-court talents and captures fleeting conversations between the African players and their new American friends about the cultural divide separating them. But "Elevate" ends right when it heads into a natural third act -- namely, college.
But the bigger issue is it lacks fully developed characters. Sleek shooters Aziz and Assan (last names are obscured to avoid any issues with NBA eligibility) assume central roles as players with the most potential, but Buford uses a scattershot approach to follow their experiences.
On the court, they consistently impress; major drama arrives only with the inevitable injury. In class and beyond, there are hints of scholastic problems and their gradually developing social lives. What's lacking is a sense for how these new experiences impact their own expectations and attitudes. As a result, it's hard to feel especially invested in any of them. They're treated as tools of a forced success story, not unlike the professional sports league that dominates their dreams.
"Hoop Dreams" turned its saga into a larger tale of class struggle. "Elevate," with its international perspective, theoretically should extend that possibility. Like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's brilliant "Sugar," which tracks a Dominican baseball player as he adjusts to the minor leagues, it provides an opportunity to explore the American dream through two innocent outsiders' perspectives.
"Elevate" nails the mission, but not the message. As the title implies, the players have a unique opportunity and are constantly urged to increase their goals against all odds. "You should always be ascending," a mentor says. But where to? Unfortunately, that destination never comes into focus.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Variance Films opens "Elevate" at New York's AMC Empire 25 this weekend, where it won't do blockbuster business but may appeal to sports fans as it continues to play in very limited release around the country.