Aziz, Byago, Dethie, and Assane (l-to-r) in "Elevate." (Variance Films / Sharp 7 )
Anne Buford's inspiring documentary "Elevate" offers a warm look at four earnest and talented Senegalese teens — Assane, Aziz, Byago and Dethie — who begin together at the Dakar boarding academy SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development), then scatter across the Atlantic to follow their hoop dreams via scholarships to American prep schools and, eventually, college.
It's the ultimate fish-out-of-water story as these towering African Muslims, brought to such largely white, Christian institutions as Illinois' Lake Forest Academy and the South Kent School in Connecticut, navigate such eye-openers as snow, American girls, the English language, U.S. basketball techniques, driver's ed and pork-filled menus. More serious pressures include watchful college scouts and academic advisors; for Aziz, there's a derailing knee injury and, for Byago, a denied visa.
Homesickness also factors in (understandable, given the many tender, Senegal-set moments producer-director Buford captures between these NBA hopefuls and their families), but the guys soldier on, with seemingly strong support from coaches, teammates and school administrators.
It's all presented with equal parts humor and sensitivity, though Buford doesn't much delve into the potential landmines here — racism, classism, exploitation — allowing the power of assimilation and opportunity to carry the day. Then again, for a film called "Elevate," perhaps it's OK just to take the high road.
"Elevate." No MPAA rating. In English, Wolof and French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.