1. The world of college athletics in the United States is a twisted, gnarled mess of greed and hypocrisy -- as brilliantly detailed in Taylor Branch's already seminal article for The Atlantic last month -- that is so corrupt and disorganized that it's an empire on the verge of collapse. But that world, as malfeasant and empty as it is, is a ticket out for the four teenagers of "Elevate," a warm, uplifting documentary that's about basketball in the way that "Gates of Heaven" was about animals. The four teens live in Senegal and are unusually tall at a young age, and therefore not only expected to play basketball, they're expected to cash in on a genetic lottery ticket out of their impoverished, desperate lives. (And their families' as well.) But it's not always so easy. These are kids, after all. "Elevate" understands this.
2. The four boys: Assane, a 7-foot tall beanpole who's generally considered the most naturally talented of the four; Aziz, also seven-foot, brawnier but more fragile; Dethie, a 6-9 kid who first picked up a basketball about a year before he was being recruited by major colleges and is a splendid student who wants to become a doctor; and Byago, a 6-3 speedster who an American coach exclaims, "You have to learn to pass!" right into his face without any indication that Byago understands what he's saying. American coaches, on the high school, AAU and college level -- have begun traveling to Senegal to scout new talent, and the four boys are among their primary targets. Three of them head to the U.S.: Assane and Dethie go to South Kent Academy in Connecticut and Azis heads to Lake Forest, Ill. Byago, because of a visa snafu that's never explained, is left behind in Senegal. Director Anne Buford follows them, and their families, and the people who aim to profit on them and, perhaps, if it's convenient, maybe help them as well.
3. "Elevate" clearly cares about these kids, sometimes too much -- the kids are rarely allowed to be anything more complicated than Innocents Abroad -- but with such a big heart and generous spirit that you can't help but be swept along. What the movie hints at -- but is too polite to say -- is that these kids are used mostly as trophies themselves by these schools, a way to ingratiate themselves with colleges and shoe companies by showing how they can cultivate new, untapped markets for talent. Who the kids might actually be, as people, is beside the point; there's a darkly funny scene in which Assane explains to Dethie that even though they're Muslim, they still have to go to services at the Catholic school. (He also gives detailed advice on how to avoid pork; "if it's sweet, it's very unlikely there is pork.") Assane is greeted at South Kent by his new coach, who lets Assane know that he'll be there for him, no matter what. Halfway through the film, with his team on a losing streak, he quits the team to take a job with Nike, having already proven his worth to the shoe giant. To think that people used to think Gene Pingatore of "Hoop Dreams" was the bad guy; he at least stayed with his team, his boys, and coached them through graduation. These days, the money's better with the shoe companies.
4. One of the most inspirational aspects of "Elevate" is how much these kids really do see America as the promised land; it is, in every possible way, their only hope. (When Byago's visa is turned down, there's a wrenching scene when his defenses break down and he just starts bawling.) As much as they're being exploited, they are still benefiting from the relationship with big-time American sports. Assane becomes an instant charmer, opening up in a way we never saw him do in Senegal, and suddenly every college in the country wants him to play basketball. Dethie's professors think he has a chance to go to Princeton. Byago finds himself with opportunities to play for the Senegalese national team, and all the travel that comes with it. For many of these boys, basketball is something entirely new to them, something they just started playing in the last few years because they were tall and everyone expected them to. Thus, they all devote themselves to it with a craftsman's efficiency, knowing that it's their chance to make a better life for their families, but a bit bewildered by all the hubbub here. There's a priceless scene when Aziz watches his Illinois school's frog mascot dance with cheerleaders with the most baffled look on his face. We are a bit strange about our sports here.
5. But for all the opportunities, there is danger. In the film's scariest scene, Aziz lands wrong going up for a rebound, and his knee buckles. In that second, it could all be over, all the hopes for his family back home, all the work he has put in, all the dreams he has allowed himself to have ... they could be gone in a snap of an ACL. He screams on the ground in pain, but of course about so much more. (I will let you watch to determine what ultimately happens with Aziz, and everyone else.) "Elevate" doesn't rise to the level of a "Hoop Dreams," if just because it's half as long and covers twice as many teenagers; you find yourself wanting to know more about these kids than just their surface situations. But in the way it shows how basketball can both use and abuse needy youths while still giving them the opportunity to rise up to levels they never imagined, it is a more than worthy successor.