Written by: Robin C. Farrell | June 24th, 2021
Sisters on Track (Tone Grøttjord-Glenne/Corinne van der Borch, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Sisters on Track opens with a rapid-fire recap of the blitz of fame surrounding the Sheppard sisters, Tai, Rainn, and Brooke. Their collective accomplishments in track earned major awards and accolades, overcoming tremendous odds. What’s refreshing is that this film isn’t interested in telling that story: the rise-to-the-top, the sports-driven, winning-of-the-big-game kind of story. Instead, Sisters on Track focuses on what happened after all of the acclaim. Directors Corinne van der Borch (Girl with Black Balloons) and Tone Grøttjord-Glenne (All That I Am) look inward and allow us to get to know the Sheppards more informally, both individually and as a family.
Sisters on Track excels at grounding the audience in the present. There’s little to none of the typical documentary trappings (archival media and so on). Instead, framed photographs of deceased family members hang on the walls and we’re informed about them through candid conversations as the women go about their lives. Throughout this documentary, there is a build to important but familiar moments: the balance between work, sports and play; decisions regarding high school and college; managing grief; job hunting, etc. Early on, the film recounts the Sheppards’ struggle through financial distress that led to homelessness. As the youngest of the girls, Brooke, states, “I thought we would be homeless for the rest of our lives,” which sets up the very pragmatic and visceral need for success in track. It isn’t just a hobby or an after-school activity. As with so many other athletes, sports is their passage to an education and, beyond that, security in life.
At the height of the Sheppards’ fame, Tyler Perry’s The Perry Foundation invested in them, paying two years’ worth of rent for an apartment big enough for all three girls and their mother, Tonia. Those two years play out over the course of the film with Tonia searching for a better job to be able to continue to pay the rent on her own, supported in enormous part by the girls’ coach, Jean Bell, at the Jeuness Track Club. Coach Bell plays a huge role in this film, inspiring the girls and insisting on the importance of their education in tandem with track, offering up safety as well as tough love, as needed.
The film ends in autumn of 2019 and leaves these women all headed into promising futures, despite the inevitable, unspoken events of 2020. It’s no mean feat that Sisters on Track creates a fine equilibrium between wrapping up this particular story – this phase of the Sheppards’ lives – while also leaving you curious to know more. After seeing this, you’ll no doubt be rooting for their continued success.