One of my two first sports memories from my childhood was the Miracle on Ice victory of the US Olympic Hockey Team defeating the Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Ever since, it has been a quadrennial ritual of mine (and now my family’s) to watch with great intensity all of the drama that unfolds as champions from every nation in the world battle it out in their respective sports on the frozen slopes,rinks and tracks.
Olympic Dreams brings us to the world of the Winter Olympics in a way that has never really been seen before. It is the first film to ever be shot in the Olympic Village during an actual Olympics – the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While this games was not without it’s nail biting moments (reference the shootout gold medal victory of the US Women’s Hockey Team) Olympic Dreams brings a different type of drama, one much more subtle although no less impactful.
Penelope (Alexi Pappas) is a cross country skier at her first Olympics and clearly is out of her element. She is adrift and alone in the Olympic Village, morose at a time when most 22-year olds would be living it up. Even though she is part of one of the largest delegation of athletes at the games, she awkwardly tries to connect to others without much success.
Away from the hustle and bustle that the athletes experience, we find 37-year old Ezra (Nick Kroll), a volunteer walk-in dentist from the US, who is equally adrift. Unsure of where to go and whom to see to get settled, Ezra, too, tries his best to fit in with the rarefied set of folks participating in Pyeongchang. He nervously admits to an athlete he’s giving a check up to that he and his fiancee are on a break as she doesn’t understand his desire to travel and experience new cultures and places. And as would have it in a film, he connects with Penelope while eating in the cafeteria setting up the arc of the rest of the film – two misfits meet…will they get together, or will they fuck it all up?
Penelope is isolated, not just being in South Korea so far from the US, but from her teammates, her coach who isn’t there with her and her family. She receives phone calls from her coach and father, but she is never at ease, emotional and clearly lost. She spent her entire childhood, training endlessly for this one shot missing out on so much to be at the Olympics, but in the end she’s alone. Hell, even her event, the 10km Freestyle, is 25-35 minutes of pure solitary hell. When she finishes, there are no fans, coaches or teammates there to greet like the other skiers with nothing but a personal best to show for it. She never got her Jessie Diggins moment. Was it really worth it? On the flipside, Ezra himself stuck in limbo between continents while his relationship is on hold, flounders in the same way that Penelope does. The budding relationship is akin to that of Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation.
I was surprised by this film and was really taken with Pappas who also co-wrote the film with Kroll and husband/director Jeremy Teicher. Her embodiment of Penelope opened up a narrative of an Olympic athlete that I hadn’t seen nor really considered before. She herself is a former Olympic long distance runner and I have no doubt that’s why her performance felt so authentic and visceral. It’s hard to separate Kroll from his previous bombastic roles in shows like The League and Parks and Recreation so his performance didn’t carry the same weight as Pappas’. They vibed well together in their scenes, but I was left with asking, why him of all people when it is no secret that the Olympic Village is a hot bed of lascivious activity.
All of the behind the scenes shots that Teicher was able to incorporate into the film were also fantastic. The scale of the Olympics is so huge and his direction made them seem so much more accessible through these characters. The inclusion of Olympian skiers Morgan Schild and Gus Kenworthy was also a really nice touch.
This is a film I really enjoyed. It’s a great film for the Valentine’s Day weekend. Would this film win the gold? Maybe, maybe not, but I think it might make the medal stand.
Olympic Dreams opens today in select cities and is also available on demand.