(The 2019 Seattle International Film Festival runs May 16-June 19 in, you guessed it, Seattle Washington. Keep your comoputer tuned to Hammer to Nail for reviews from our Seattle-ite Jessica Baxter. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)
There are over 200 athletes that compete in every Olympics, and each one has a story. But we only hear about a handful of them, and they’re never the athletes at the bottom of the rankings. Nevertheless, every single person who competes in the Olympics has spent the better part of their lives preparing for it. One of the main aims of the Olympics is to make the audience feel good. We want inspirational stories about people overcoming adversity to achieve their goals. The alternative is almost too much to bare. With Olympic Dreams, director Jeremy Teicher and his muse/co-writer/star Alexi Pappas, seek to find the consolation prize in making it all the way to the most prestigious of athletic competitions, only to lose their event on day one.
Pappas, who collaborated with Teicher on two previous films (Tall as the Baobab Tree, Tracktown), stars as Penelope, a 22-year-old American cross-country skier who, after failing to place in her event, suddenly finds herself with a lot of time on her hands in Pyeongchang, South Korea. We don’t learn why her coach declined to accompany her to the most important competition of her life thus far, but we can feel her crushing loneliness and disappointment as it rapidly morphs into an existential crisis regarding next steps. Should she take the GREs and start a new life, or sign up for another four-year track to the next Olympics?
Also at a crossroads is Ezra (Nick Kroll), a 37-year-old volunteer dentist who is taking some time away from his less-than-satisfying practice and a fiancé who asked for a “break.” Ezra is a friendly sort who excitedly bounces around the Olympic village, whilst barely concealing his emotional baggage. He first approaches Penelope when she is mid-preparation for her event, and she understandably brushes him off. But they continue to cross paths and eventually spend time together on purpose. As they explore the village and the city beyond, they carry on a big-picture conversation with an undercurrent of sexual tension.
Olympic Dreams was shot during the 2018 Winter Games after South Korean president Moon Jae-in gave Teicher and Pappas (a long-distance runner in the 2016 Rio Olympics) an all-access pass to the facilities, so long as they kept their cast and crew sparse. Teicher described his role as that of a “one-man-band”, while Pappas and Kroll were the only two professional actors in the film. Pappas used her natural gregariousness and athletic intuition to fill out the tertiary characters with impromptu volunteers. The one competitor they approached ahead of time was freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, who plays a small, but pivotal role in the narrative.
The gimmick is reason enough to see this film. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for outsiders to get a real peak behind the scenes at the Olympics. But the trio sweeten the deal with a terrific story that plays like Before Sunrise for the socially awkward and unpretentious. Teicher and Pappas had little more than a camera, a story outline, a master improviser, and of course, an extremely limited shooting schedule. There would be no pick-ups. You get what you get and you don’t get upset.
Kroll and Pappas do most of the heavy lifting, knitting together a beautifully understated love story between two people who have naught in common but their anxiety and temporary proximity. Pappas gives a raw and earnest performance that clearly taps into some very real emotions. Kroll, best known for his comedic performances, once again proves that comedians are vastly underrated and underutilized in a dramatic capacity. You can feel the heartache between these two unlikely companions as they attempt to navigate an intense and ineffable connection with a looming sell-by date. It might not be as inspiring as a story of triumph over adversity, but it’s certainly more relatable.
Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?
– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)