At its most basic level, a story of a teen trying to join a track team is pretty straightforward – however, the sports drama “Sprinter” (screening during the 45th Seattle International Film Festival) focuses more on a young phenom’s sudden fame, and what it means for him and his aspirations.
In short: Up-and-coming Jamaican teen sprinter Akeem (Dale Elliott) hopes to qualify for the World Youth Championships. So he can see his mother, who has been living illegally in the U.S. for years. Also stars David Alan Grier and Lorraine Toussaint.
The personal distractions that Akeem must overcome adds depth and dimension to his journey from unknown student to breakout track-and-field superstar. Akeem’s brother was once a vaunted young athlete thought to be the “next great thing,”. But he turned to crime when sports left him behind. His mother wanted a better life for her family. So she has sent money back to Jamaica. And his father has become an unstable, irresponsible drunk.
Akeem is just like any other high school athlete. But his overnight success skyrockets to him to fame on every level.
He’s not just the big man at his high school. The entire nation thrusts overwhelming expectations on this young man’s shoulders. Where Akeem starts from speaks volumes to the hopelessness of life in Jamaica. The immediate pressure put upon sprinters. Much like football stars are here in the United States, this film portrays the praise heaped upon Akeem for his performance on the track. And it’s in this space where “Sprinter” becomes more than just another sports drama: It thrusts a wholly unprepared young man from a fractured, volatile home into the glaring spotlight. That of high expectations and life-changing stakes.
Furthermore, “Sprinter” presents track as a “way out” from Jamaica. Where the only other viable alternative is crime. The fact that Akeem’s mother has to risk her freedom to live and work in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant asserts how much Jamaicans are willing to risk, just for a modest life in an impoverished nation. The film is unlike conventional sports stories because “Sprinter” offers a grounded look into the life of a Jamaican.
Somewhere along the line, the plot loses faith in its inherently compelling, character-based drama and allows the plot to follow some pedestrian “sports movie” turns.
It’s plainly obvious that Akeem’s sprinting career could easily be derailed by a fluke injury. Jamaica offers few opportunities if his career fizzles out. However, the film does take some heavy-handed plot turns that hammer home this message. After a few missteps, however. The film recovers its stride and “Sprinter” grows into an inspiring sports drama.
Sprinter is more than a story about a young boy’s athletic aspirations. Sprinter is a story about self-determination, resiliency, and family. Akeem is propelled into his adulthood as he no longer passively accept the things. That happen to him and no longer follows other people’s expectations of him. Instead, Akeem finally takes his life into his own hands and carries the future of his entire family on his back. That as he reunites with his mother and mends broken ties with his father and brother.
What the film also importantly illustrates is the struggle so many immigrants families feel when mothers or fathers are forced to separate. That from their children in order to find a better life in another country so they can send money back home. What the director also does so well is display the beauty, lusciousness, and vibrancy of Jamaica that sets an enduring backdrop for Akeem’s triumph.
“Sprinter” also triumphs through the passionate performances from its ensemble.
Apart from some distracting accent attempts from the few non-Jamaicans, the cast successfully breathes life into these characters. As Akeem’s teammate who is determined to make a name for herself, “Yardie” star Shantol Jackson’s feisty performance is another feather in the cap of her promising career. Meanwhile, Kadeem Wilson is another standout as Akeem’s charismatic older brother involved in a lucrative but illicit enterprise.
Just like his character, however, it is Dale Elliott who is the film’s greatest revelation. His youthful brio brings a wide-eyed sincerity that is compelling to watch. In the film’s quieter scenes, he proves to be equally captivating.
The film shines best in the more intimate moments, when it explores the various dynamics between the characters. As Saulter and cinematographer Pedro Gómez Millán train the camera on Elliott’s expressive face, the film effectively communicates his internal conflicts as he contemplates life-changing decisions. And this intimacy with our protagonist pays off powerfully in the climactic scene, which uses a simple yet effective visual metaphor to showcase the film’s most important theme. Ultimately, the film’s beating heart comes not from the adrenaline rush of competition, but a precious bond between a mother and son.
Final verdict: While the “sports drama” plot trajectory itself is rather predictable, “Sprinter” is most compelling when it explores what it means to be an athlete in Jamaica on the verge of super-stardom.
Directed By: Storm Saulter
Stars: Lorraine Toussaint, David Alan Grier, Bryshere Y. Gray
In Theaters: Apr 24, 2019 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Apr 24, 2019
Runtime: 112 minutes
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR SPRINTER
Sprinter is a movie that leaves virtually no sporting cliche unbothered, yet it’s rooted in a naturalistic, emotional family drama reflecting the specific pleasures and perils of life in Jamaica.
A crowd-pleaser devoid of false sentimentality, thanks to its disarming young lead, Dale Elliott, and a sturdy supporting cast that includes Lorraine Toussaint and Dennis Titus…
This jogs along a predictable path, but makes a mad dash straight for the audience’s gut right before the finish line.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s an entertaining, thoughtful, and thought-provoking one. One that ought to be seen on the big screen.