A gimmicky, obscurant and clumsy style of storytelling spoils what could have been gripping story about a young Russian figure skater who “jumps” across the border to Finland in “Free Skate,” a film written by and starring Finnish actress Veera W. Vilo and directed by her husband Roope Olenius.
It doesn’t identify characters by name, doesn’t lay out exactly what’s happening and jumps back and forth between figure skating training in Finland and nightmarish flashbacks to such training and the underworld connections to the sport in Russia.
It’s a good yarn that’s harder to get into than need be because of that, and dialogue that shifts from Russian to Finnish and then to English so abruptly it takes some getting used to, and even then seems a blunder — gracelessly executed.
The acting is uneven, too, with our star graceful and at home in the athletic scenes, unemotional when she needs to be and a little less than convincing in at least one of the three languages “The Figure Skater” speaks. Intense scenes have a flat quality that robs the heroine of the built-in pathos the character is entitled to.
We’re hurled into the story when we see a cop come up on the crumpled body of a young woman, lying on a snowy road. Her red jacket has Cyrillic type, so we’re guessing she’s Russian. The cop’s radio call doesn’t have nearly enough spit per syllable, so we’re guessing she’s been found somewhere across the border — Finland, it turns out.
The Skater is reassured in the hospital (in English), and the contrasts with her old life are laid out as the flashbacks begin. She didn’t end up dumped on a snowy road without help.
In the first flashback, we see a blonde skater — Or is she a coach? — brutalized in front of her before we’ve had a chance to figure out who it is we’re following. The brutes who come in are Russian, but unidentified.
Are they from the figure skating ministry, alliance, directorate? Or just thugs? What’s the mob’s angle in all of this?
The girl had a phone number in her jacket, and that’s who the Finns call. A much older woman (Leona Uotila) takes her in. We eventually discover she’s her Finnish grandmother, who speaks no Russian.
When we see VHS tapes the old woman plays for the skater, we realize that’s the skater’s mother. Eventually.
The whole movie is like this, second year film school “Let’s pointlessly make the audience work to figure out the basics” nonsense.
There are great shots and good editing and parallel story construction that let us contrast Finnish coaching, laid back and humanistic, and the unabandoned and cruel Soviet model — bullying, yelling, weigh-ins, “fat” shaming of some of the fittest athletes on Earth.
Make’em stand out in the snow in their underwear. They’ll SHIVER off the kilograms, comrades!
We get a dose of the pressure the new skater (she isn’t in school, the actress playing her was 30 at the time, even if she doesn’t look it) is under, desperate to sort her paperwork, to not be sent back, to find sponsors.
“F—-n’ Rooskie!” some Finns snap at her in the rink.
The skating is quite good and the depiction of the milieu is interesting, if simplistic — butal Russians contrasted with sweetness-and-light Finns. Sweetness and light. Not saying that’s not accurate, but it comes off as heavy-handed here.
The film’s third act turn towards graphic violence and ugly revelations is handled with a clinical, chilly remove that again, tends to spoil the effect Olenius was going for. The can’t-miss finale is botched, too.
But let’s not create a rift in the marriage. The lovely, athletic star — she used to be a gymnast — isn’t the best actress, either. And if this style of storytelling was her idea, she got in her movie’s way there, too.
A more conventional approach would have gone a long ways towards making “Free Skate” less of a “free form” experiment in needlessly convoluted screen storytelling.
Rating: unrated, violence, rape, drug abuse, nudity, profanity
Cast: Veera W. Vilo, Leena Uotila, Karolina Blackburn, Saara Elina and Miikka J. Anttila
Credits: Directed by Roope Olenius, scripted by Veera W. Vilo. A Bright Fame/Fizz-E-Motion/IndieCan release.
Running time: 1:58