Long on hopefulness but short on sobering realities, Elevate proves a compelling, if superficial, look at the arduous path traveled by Senegalese teens hoping to make it to America for a higher education and an NBA career. Anne Buford’s documentary charts terrain somewhat similar to Christopher Quinn and Tommy Walker’s God Grew Tired of Us, in that part of its focus is the uneasy cultural, social, and academic transition from Africa to the United States—a shift that, though eagerly desired, can prove complicated by language barriers, homesickness, and other equally disruptive obstacles. Buford concentrates on a handful of would-be pro-ballers with intimate attentiveness, following towering Aziz N’Diaye as he makes his way to an Illinois prep academy and Assane Sene and Papa Madethie “Dethie” Fall as they embark on similar journeys to Connecticut. At these private schools, which double as feeders for big-time college basketball programs, SAT scores turn out to be as potentially debilitating to dreams as are knee injuries, and Buford doesn’t shy away from the fact that these young men’s aspirations remain far-off goals, with entry into the States only the first of many steps toward playing in ESPN-televised games.
Unfortunately, while Buford’s aesthetics are appropriately discreet, she doesn’t dig deeply enough to truly get at the precariousness of Aziz, Assane, Dethie, and their brethren’s chances of seizing their overseas opportunities; there’s a persistent sense throughout Elevate that the director is uninterested in truly plumbing the more painful, confusing emotions and thorny educational and social issues that confront her subjects. Similarly, her film doesn’t even flirt with a discussion about the fundamental exploiter/exploited relationship between African players and American schools (and staffers). That dynamic need not have been presented in a wholly negative light, since, though these institutions are certainly apt to use kids for their own purposes, they also afford a genuine shot at otherwise unavailable personal and professional prospects, but given the topic, it requires more attention than given here. As a result, the film coasts by on the charm of its central student athletes, who come off as uniformly good kids striving to improve their own lives as well as those of their Senegal-situated families, and whose triumphs and trials are conveyed with heart and sobriety, if ultimately too little complexity or depth.