A young gymnast focused on getting to the Olympics faces the serious and deadly-personal distractions of unrest in her native Ukraine in “Olga,” an intimate and moving drama starring real-life Ukrainian gymnast Anastasiia Budiashkina.
The first feature film from Swiss director and co-writer Elie Grappe takes us inside a sport and into a historical flashpoint — Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” — for a gripping story at the intersection of sports and politics.
Olga is having enough pulling off her Jaeger release on the uneven bars, when her country’s turmoil and her mother’s place in it become a life-and-death “distraction.”
She’s a muscular, hyper-focused Kyiv teen prepping for the European championships, self-involved and resentful for her widowed mother’s inattention when it comes to her passion. But Mom (Tanya Mikhina) has her own all-consuming life’s work. She’s a journalist covering a corrupt, Russian-backed regime in a country on the precipice. It’s 2013, and Mom’s work gets her attention, some of it unwanted.
She and Olga are rammed with murderous intent on their drive home from gymnastics practice and Olga is cut up in the crash.
Months later, she’s having to adjust to an abrupt change in her life. She’s in Switzerland, a part of a team there, trading on her late father’s Swiss citizenship and leaning on his family for a place to stay as her mother’s gotten her out of the danger zone.
Olga speaks a little French, which doesn’t mean her unfriendlier teammates can’t get away with a little smack talk in German or Italian in trilingual Switzerland.
She’s stubborn, ignoring direct instructions to stop trying to master that Jaeger by her new coach, ignoring his “No practice alone” edict, neglecting her studies. She misses her friends, isn’t all that welcome in her grandfather’s house, and then Ukraine bursts into violence. Not only does she have to rethink her application for Swiss citizenship. She adds “guilt” to the swirl of emotions she’s got to tamp down to make it in the sport that has dominated her life thus far.
Grappe and co-writer Raphaëlle Desplechin narrow the frame of the film, concentrating only on Olga, her trials and her reactions to every bit of Internet bad news from home. Her best friend Sasha (Sabrina Rubtsova) had been Facetiming her accounts of what’s going on with the old team. Now, she’s all about Maidan Square, ground zero for the uprising, and what life is like on “the barricades,” questioning Olga’s priorities and patriotism.
Olga is rattled, lashing out at her mother who keeps cutting her off as she puts herself in danger to cover the huge and violent story that is exploding around her. And her new teammates aren’t all fans. Things are sure to come to a head in that locker room, sooner than later.
Casting Budiashkina pays dividends all around as she shows us a poker-faced competitor with a vulnerable side. She’s utterly credible on the uneven bars and other gymnastics competition categories. A lot of screen time is spent establishing her personality on the bars, refusal to give up on something difficult, sucking it up when it counts, in or out of the gym.
It’s a near perfect performance in an intensely myopic movie, a film that narrows our focus to what matters much as it does Olga’s, and lets its protagonist and star surprise us more than once along the way.
Rating: unrated, violence, teen smoking, profanity
Cast: Anastasiia Budiashkina, Tanya Mikhina, Sabrina Rubtsova, Théa Brogli and Caterina Barloggio.
Credits: Directed by Elie Grappe, scripted by Raphaëlle Desplechin and Elie Grappe. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:25