In the last few years, documentary films (at least the ones that are seen by everybody outside of HBO subscribers or museum frequenters) have splintered, roughly, into two camps. In one camp are the "issue" films that tackle some kind of grand social or environmental concern (like, say, the diorama-ish "An Inconvenient Truth" or "Inside Job") with a relative amount of objective emotional detachment. Then there are the documentaries that take a more narrative approach to their subjects, which resemble more closely traditional films and ask for a fair amount of emotional investment.
Rarely do the two factions of modern documentary filmmaking reconcile themselves in any cohesive way, but this is the case with Anne Buford's "Elevate," which had its world premiere at SXSW. The tale of a group of young men from Senegal who, through an initiative that takes them from their village to United States prep schools, are giving the chance to play basketball and one day follow their dreams to the NBA. It might sound cutesy and it kind-of is, but it's also amazingly involving and nicely sidesteps a lot of the traps that would have turned it into saccharine, feel-good fluff.
When the movie starts, it lets you see the living conditions in West African without ever dwelling on the poverty or lack of basic needs. These kids just love basketball, and they're all trying out for this program, fighting through the mixed feelings of leaving home and struggling with the very real concerns like securing a work visa to play abroad. This opening stuff, in which we establish a handful of the players (each deeply skilled in fundamental ways), never feels exploitative or manipulatively sad. The kids who live there seem to embody the same approach the filmmakers had – it is what it is.
Then a few of the kids get the scholarships/golden tickets (the program is founded by a Dallas Mavericks coach from the same area) and we watch as their lives are transformed. We mostly see two students as they attend two different, incredibly white prep schools – one in Lake Forest, Illinois (where, for comparison's sake, Michael Jordan owns a home) and South Kent, Connecticut. Both are affluent prep schools, and in its own subtle way the film acknowledges the outrageousness of the conceit behind the program without ever dwelling on its hypocrisy or getting mired in political "outrage."
And that really is one of "Elevate's" strongest suits – its ability to swiftly convey information without ever getting bogged down by the potential thorny issues surrounding said information. Some will surely attack the film for this, claiming that it lacks depth for not engaging in these debates. But from where this reviewer was sitting, it's a huge asset – it acknowledges the issues but never becomes an "issues" movie. It's an underdog story, and definitely highlights concerns that need to be talked about, but it's a strongly told story with a powerful narrative motor. It addresses things with a light touch and then moves on.
But back to the kids – we watch as they interact with new students, which is cute and surprising, we see them acclimate themselves to their new environment (one student advises another, who has just come over to Africa, to "just ask if there's pork in it"), and struggle with being Muslim while attending a staunchly Catholic school. (In a touching, quiet moment, we just watch as a student prays in his small dorm room.)
By the end of the movie the "Rocky"-ish climax is established with all of the kids from Senegal taking part in a kind of global basketball game, with their country pitted against others. And all of this stuff is appropriately rousing and spirited (all of the basketball sequences, brilliantly cut together, have a singular, jaunty rhythm), but the real heart of the movie happens later, as we watch the kids graduating from high school. (Tears will be cascading down your face as you listen to the prickly little white principle talking about how much a student has touched him and taught him, his voice breaking as he chokes back a cry.)
It's this added, personal dimension, that gives the finale a lot of heft and makes the movie even more than it's two parts – it's a sports documentary with a smooth narrative flow that also is about a bigger issue. In the end, "Elevate" about transcendence – about transcending where you're from, about who you are, about what people tell you that you can achieve. But it never gets trapped or too caught up in its own thematic weight. In basketball terms, it's a "swoosh." [A-]