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Hoping to capitalize on Sochi Winter Olympics hype, Lifetime’s The Gabby Douglas Story takes us back two years to the Summer Olympics in London. There, a 17-year-old Gabby Douglas won the gold medal for the individual all-around, and then another gold with her “Fierce Five” American teammates for the team all-around. The movie chronicles the young athlete’s meteoric rise thanks to her natural talent, good coaching and the sacrifices of her family. It’s a heartwarming story, but the movie’s rote, linear take on what is such an incredible accomplishment doesn’t quite stick its landing.
The most interesting thing about The Gabby Douglas Story is how much it focuses on her mother, Natalie Hawkins (played with depth and compassion by Regina King). Then again, Douglas (portrayed at different ages by Sydney Mikayla and Imani Hakim) was so young during most of the story, she could hardly pose as the star. Much of the movie revolves around the family’s struggles with money, illness and even briefly, homelessness. But Douglas’ determination was fortuitously matched by her mother and siblings’ understanding of her talent, to the point of sacrificing their own desires to support hers.
The Gabby Douglas Story has its greatest strength in its illustration of this idea, as well as the rapid pace of Douglas’ movement toward Olympic gold. The inspirational speeches from Hawkins and legendary coach Liang Chow (Brian Tee) are expected, but the movie taking some time to acknowledge the fact that it takes so many resources and such a protracted timetable to mold an Olympic-caliber athlete is truly a breathtaking fact. Nothing illustrates the almost absurd timeline better than a montage toward the end of the movie that features Douglas looking back on her life — or as her mother puts it in an earlier scene when Douglas laments the potential end of her dreams, “You are 12 years old!“
The Gabby Douglas Story, which was executive produced by Douglas and Hawkins, recounts the well-known facts of Douglas’ successful journey to the London Olympics, but it doesn’t take time to go deeper. Viewers get to know Hawkins much more so than Douglas, who is never shown interacting with teammates or, really, anyone besides her coach and her mother. Like Douglas’ real feelings, issues of race are pushed to the periphery, or ignored completely. Douglas is very clearly the only African-American gymnast anywhere onscreen, and at one point, her character does at least say, “There are not any black people in Iowa.” Also, an important early plot about Hawkins’ illness, which renders her unable to work, is dropped as the focus moves on to Douglas’ life with a host family in Des Moines. And yet, almost nothing about her time with them (totaling almost two years) is shown, aside from the fact they all (including Douglas) wear matching pajamas at Christmas.
The movie’s greatest challenge though is having its young actresses re-create scenes from Douglas’ gymnastics routines. Choppy editing helps depict some illusion of performance, with Hakim in particular working to match Douglas’ real movements as she is transposed into Douglas’ spot at the end of real routines. The effect isn’t as hokey as it could be, but it’s also so obvious that it feels like that time could have been better spent exploring other areas of the story.
Though the movie is fine as a sweet, inspirational tale about determination through injury and many other stumbling blocks, nothing within it is as moving as the final montage, which is just actual footage from Douglas’ incredible gold-medal-winning London performance. Unfortunately, the simmering hum of The Gabby Douglas Story never reaches the fever pitch of Douglas’ true rise and triumph.
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