New to Blu: Sprinter (2019) - Reviewed

Some audiences might not be familiar with the Jamaican slang term “Barrel Pickney” to describe children whose parents have left them in order to find a better life abroad, but its concept is at the core of the sports drama Sprinter.  These children receive barrels of food and clothing from their overseas parents to sustain them, often clinging to the hope that one day their family might reunite, but in reality, the parents’ visas will often expire while they are gone, making them unable to return home without risking everything.

Akeem Sharp (Dale Elliott) is a Barrel Pickney in this film.  His mother Donna (Lorraine Toussaint) left Jamaica for California when he was young, assuring her husband and children that her departure would only last two years, but now Akeem is a teenager, and has only seen his mother through Skype since she left.  He is a promising track and field athlete at his school, and dreams that one day, his success might bring him to the U.S., where he can finally see his mother again outside of a laptop screen.  Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy:  juggling poverty, an alcoholic father, and a criminal brother, Akeem must put aside his personal tribulations and overcome all odds to rise to the top.

Sprinter is a personal, heartbreaking, and inspiring film.  Like many sports films, the track and field aspect is secondary to the story of an unstable family.  Relying heavily on handheld camera, shallow focus, and natural lighting, it is an intimate exploration of everyday life in Jamaica, and an even more intimate view into Akeem’s personal life.  We are right there with Akeem as he feels the frustration of his mother’s absence, and falter with him when his unfettered teen impulses cause mischief.  Rich with a dancehall soundtrack and warm, carefree essence that celebrates Jamaican culture, we become part of this town that is struggling but still able to appreciate the small joys in life.  It is a deeply moving, immersive piece of Caribbean cinema that should be celebrated.

The film’s performances help to bring Sprinter’s world to life.  Dale Elliott displays the ebbs and flows of teenage boydom perfectly, filled with angst that is thinly veiled under a cocksure arrogance that gets the best of him at times.  Comedy legend David Alan Grier shows us his best Jamaican accent as he depicts Akeem’s no-nonsense coach in powerful displays of tough love for his students.  Kadeem Wilson plays a charismatic con effortlessly as Akeem’s older brother and flawed mentor Germaine, who was once a track star himself, but turned to scams when his dreams fell through. 

The only issue with Sprinter is the slightly lagging second half and the cliche sports drama tropes that the film slips into occasionally.  While it is genuinely well-done, the story of a troubled teen that turns to sports for solace and aspires for a better life is certainly not the most original one.  In a moment that is almost too on the nose, one character reminds us that “no man can outrun the choices he makes,” but that doesn’t stop these characters from trying.  The plot ends up culminating in a somewhat predictable way, but fortunately for director Storm Saulter’s innate vision and aptitude, it does not feel disappointing despite its predictability.

Sprinter is a candid examination of broken homes and the sacrifices immigrant families make.  With its tropical backdrop and universally resonating theme of perseverance, this coming-of-age film is a marathon of emotions worth embarking upon.

-Andrea Riley