'Sprinter' film review: Universal sports drama told with a uniquely Jamaican voice
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 and 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 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 and 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.
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.
"Sprinter" screens during SIFF 2019. This sports drama is unrated and has a running time of 114 minutes.