Audiences will immediately recognize many of the plot points from Storm Saulter’s “Sprinter,” despite the fact that the Jamaican backdrop may be unfamiliar. Saulter has crafted a coming-of-age story that is recognizable enough to allow every audience an emotional inlet, while also highlighting all the things that make the Jamaican adolescent experience unique.
With a stellar cast that boasts several familiar faces, “Sprinter” strikes many of the right chords. The film opens with Akeem’s mother (Lorraine Toussaint) leaving Jamaica to find better work opportunities in the United States. Her claim that she will only be gone for 2 short years is immediately proven false when we flash forward a decade. Dale Elliott, who plays Akeem, shines in his first film role. Saulter reportedly spotted Elliott on his vlog channel when he created a comedic video depicting the differences between American and Jamaican Olympic athletes. Elliott certainly flexes his track and comedy skills in “Sprinter,” with plenty of room to stretch other acting muscles thanks to the script’s dramatic and emotionally intense material.
Along with his mother, Akeem has several important figures in his life, including his alcoholic father Garfield (Dennis Titus), his track coach (David Alan Grier), and his brother Germaine (Kadeem Wilson). Germaine, especially, offers an important beacon for Akeem, who views his older brother as an example of success. Germaine was once also a track star, but his career was cut short and he now runs a phone scamming business that provides him wealth and all of the perks that come with it. Meanwhile, Akeem becomes less invested in his relationship with his father and struggles to follow the guidelines set by his coach, who wants nothing more than to see Akeem work hard and succeed.
Along with Akeem, Kerry Hall (Shantol Jackson) shines on their high school track team, eventually earning a trip to the U.S. to compete in the Youth Games. Kerry’s work ethic and no-nonsense approach to her friendship with Akeem prove to be essential to his growth not only as a runner, but as a person. Hall’s performance is one of the strongest in the film. Akeem’s journey through high school includes navigating difficult interpersonal relationships with other students and his family. Saulter has attempted to pack a lot of material into his 114 minute running time. This can make certain developments feel rushed or skipped over, but overall, it is an effective portrait of Akeem’s growth.
One of the more distracting aspects of “Sprinter” are the subtitles. While viewers may have difficulty understanding some of the local slang used in the film, the subtitles throughout are mostly unnecessary, since the actors are speaking English. Even for some of the unfamiliar terms (“grill” used to refer to a gated metal fence, for instance), context clues likely would have sufficed even for American audiences.
“Sprinter” invites its viewers to experience Akeem’s emotional journey, complete with big highs and deep lows. By the end of the film, it is clear that despite Akeem’s competitive nature, the only race he needs to run is against himself. “Sprinter” is showing at the Lightbox Film Center on day 2 of the 8th annual BlackStar Film Festival, which runs from August 1-4. More information about the festival can be found at its website.