“Hope is the thing with feathers.” Famed poet Emily Dickinson surely wasn’t thinking about 21st century immigration and athletics stardom when she penned this quote in her poem of the same name. But the sentiment behind those immortal words resonates strongly throughout Storm Saulter’s new film “Sprinter“.

This award-winning drama opens with a poignant airport scene wherein a Jamaican woman leaves behind her husband and son to chase the American dream, vowing to return after finding a better life. And the fulfillment of that hope, or lack thereof, becomes one of the major themes of the film, as one of several promises or expectations which affect the central characters. Indeed, as the plot fast forwards 10 years, we meet the son Akeem (Dale Elliott), who is now growing up in a single parent home. An aspiring track star, he finds almost overnight success when he runs one of the fastest 200m times ever by a high school athlete. Now dubbed the “Rasta Rocket”, he trains to make the national team for the upcoming World Youth Championships in Los Angeles (and with it, a chance to reunite with his mother). But Akeem begins to feel burdened by the weight of expectations, the distractions of teenage dating and his longing for the mother who left him when he needed her most.

Torn between the competing influences of his dysfunctional family, his disciplinarian coach and the temptations of the fast life, Akeem’s story is part family drama, part underdog sports movie and part coming-of-ager. Admittedly, these plot threads play out in mostly expected ways. But Saulter elevates the material through the specificity of its Jamaican context. From a pulsating soundtrack that will make you want to dance, to a lottery scam subplot that brings much needed tension, Saulter captures a genuine, immersive atmosphere.

“Sprinter” also triumphs through the passionate performances from its ensemble. Apart from some distracting accent attempts from the few non-Jamaicans, the cast successfully breathes life into these characters. As Akeem’s teammate who is determined to make a name for herself, “Yardie” star Shantol Jackson’s feisty performance is another feather in the cap of her promising career. Meanwhile, Kadeem Wilson is another standout as Akeem’s charismatic older brother involved in a lucrative but illicit enterprise.

Just like his character, however, it is Dale Elliott who is the film’s greatest revelation. His youthful brio brings a wide-eyed sincerity that is compelling to watch. In the film’s quieter scenes, he proves to be equally captivating.

The film shines best in the more intimate moments, when it explores the various dynamics between the characters. As Saulter and cinematographer Pedro Gómez Millán train the camera on Elliott’s expressive face, the film effectively communicates his internal conflicts as he contemplates life-changing decisions. And this intimacy with our protagonist pays off powerfully in the climactic scene, which uses a simple yet effective visual metaphor to showcase the film’s most important theme. Ultimately, the film’s beating heart comes not from the adrenaline rush of competition, but a precious bond between a mother and son.

“Sprinter” opens in theaters on demand April 24.

GRADE: (★★★)