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In the charming romantic comedy Olympic Dreams, director Jeremy Teicher sets the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as the backdrop for a love story between Penelope, an anxious cross-country skier (newcomer Alexi Pappas), and Ezra, an outgoing volunteer dentist (Nick Kroll). Shot guerilla-style with a one-person crew (Teicher in his third feature), the pic is visually exciting and has a palpably organic quality that translates well to the screen. It is also the first scripted film approved by the Olympic Committee to shoot during an Olympics.
As far as the idea of city as character goes, this movie knows its locale is inseparable from the journey of the characters and the audience’s visual experience. We get to marvel at the grandeur and exclusivity of the Olympic stadium and the snow-capped outdoor competition venues, but we also get to experience the more mundane aspects: the massage chairs where athletes decompress in the game room, the dormitory parties, the dining hall where lifelong connections are forged between strangers.
Penelope and Ezra first meet in the large Athlete Village dining hall, when Ezra awkwardly interrupts Penelope as she mentally prepares herself for her cross-country ski competition. Understandably, she’s annoyed and focused on her race, but in such a contained environment, they of course run into one another again and gradually begin to grow closer.
Olympic Dreams has the familiar rom-com plot elements we’re used to seeing — two strangers who don’t click at first eventually become smitten and challenge each other to become better people — but it is far from predictable. Aided by Teicher and Pappas’ scrappy filmmaking ethos — their casting, shooting and props often came together on a wing and a prayer — the film is a raw depiction of emotional intimacy between two people who are both slightly neurotic in different ways, but nevertheless want big things out of life.
The juxtaposition of physical strength and emotional vulnerability is deeply moving, especially when it comes to Penelope. Olympic Dreams also brings fresh energy to the genre in taking its time when it comes to intimacy. It focuses more on the subtle than the expected, swapping out random hookups and prolonged shots of fit bodies with the surprising avoidance of Penelope and Ezra’s first kiss. The result is a dramatic tension that carries through all the way to its final act.
Another part of the film’s interest is that it’s a study of a subculture within a subculture that swings realistically back and forth between the two. It’s about Olympic athlete life, yes, but specifically it focuses on the experiences of the athletes who don’t medal or make the news, who have worked for years to compete at the highest levels and then have to pick up the pieces when they don’t advance in competitions. So many questions bubble up here that give the film a contemplative boost that’s often missing in rom-coms. What does it mean to work toward a difficult goal for years and then have it escape your grasp? What holds you back from going after what you want and what propels you forward? Is believing in yourself enough?
While the pic nicely captures the banality of athlete life in between competitions, its depictions of the Korean locals who staff the Olympic village feel static and underdeveloped. Upbeat Korean pop music often plays throughout the film, and this adds to the sense of place, but it also rings trite at times. In one scene, we see a group of young, hip Korean women dancers performing. In another, the two attendants in the dental clinic where Ezra works are played for silly laughs. All this taken together at times feel patronizing with a hint of exoticism. And though the rotating cast of athletes from all over the world is a good touch, it would’ve been nice to see some depth given to even one Korean character.
Overall, though, Olympic Dreams is a refreshing and confident piece of work. Teicher, as well as both Pappas and Kroll, are up to the challenge a movie like this presents, and the success of their collaboration shines onscreen.
Cast: Alexi Pappas, Nick Kroll, Gus Kenworthy, Morgan Schild
Director: Jeremy Teicher
Screenwriters: Alexi Pappas, Jeremy Teicher, Nick Kroll
Producers: Jeremy Teicher, Alexi Pappas, Nick Kroll, Will Rowbotham, Nora May
Executive producers: Greg Groggel, Nicholas Weinstock
Director of photography: Jeremy Teicher
Casting: Jennifer K.M. Treadwell, Monica Kelly
Sound design: Nathan Ruyle
Costume designer: Alexi Pappas?
Music: Jay Wadley and Annie Hart
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Endeavor Content, Deb McIntosh and Joe Facarion
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