SXSW Review: Olympic Dreams


Maybe it’s in the name, but this is a dream of a film. To see a film completely sold out at the end of a festival is rare, but owing to its unique, funny, tenderness, Olympic Dreams was something truly special. Filmed on location at the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games in 2018 and starring Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas,  it had an authenticity that’s difficult to replicate. I’m so glad for directors and storytellers who aren’t afraid to step out of the norm and follow their creative leadings: this is how original ideas take flight and showcase brilliant talent.

Olympic Dreams
Director: Jeremy Teicher

Release date: March 10, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
Rating: G

Olympic Dreams centres on 22-year-old Penelope (portrayed by 28-year-old Pappas), a cross-country skier competing in the Winter Olympics for the first time. In the immortal words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, she’s ‘within and without’ — both included in the exclusive Athlete’s village and feeling desperately isolated. A little socially awkward, she finds it difficult to make a connection with the people around her, unable to accept a dinner invitation or hang out with others. At the same time, 37-year-old volunteer dentist Ezra (Nick Kroll), finds himself at the Olympics almost by accident. On a break from his ex-fiancee-whatever-you-wanna-call-it, he’s a little lost in life and jumps at the opportunity to travel so that he can get away from home. The two meet, there are possibly the most understated fireworks in the history of rom coms, but the effect is a lovely, tender look at the way in which two people can bond in a way that no-one else gets.

It’s undoubtedly a fun film to review. The two main characters are adorable together: they share goofy laughs, snap fun pics on the beach in Korea and have an extended conversation about a small teddy bear which is so deliciously awkward I audibly laughed out loud. And after seeing so many films over the course of a week, you start to see the connections between them. I think that Olympic Dreams really gets to the heart of the best storytelling: it’s about realising you have things in common with others, and finding your people.

For a one-man-crew, director Jeremy Teicher was brilliant, insightful. His vision comes across through the camera, as if we experience the narrative from the point of view I never got the impression that it was crowded or difficult: the whole thing felt so fluid and so intimate that it’s like we were part of their intimate conversation.  A comment must also be made on the wonderful editing: it had the ability to elevate us to euphoric heights with its anthem soundtracks, while bringing us back down to quietly personal level with its characters expressing their joy at being together. Alexi Pappas, too, made a wonderful lead. After a breakout role in another co-production (Tracktown, 2016) with partner in creativity and life Teicher, she stole the show. Nick Kroll, too, was an excellent co-star, perfectly toeing the line between thoughtful and outlandish, reserved but brimming with a desire to break free and live his life.

I feel as though it’s a very honest point of view: Penelope is attending the Olympics on her own, her coach isn’t able to meet with her there, so after the opening scene with an emotional phone call back home, she’s completely alone. This is the side of professional sporting that nobody talks about: Penelope might have the drive and ambition to become a world-class athlete, friends and family might cheer her on, but beneath it all she’s sacrificed a lifetime’s worth of proms, bah-mitzvahs and birthday parties to get here. She helps us to understand that, at the top, it’s a pretty lonely place.

Now, it’s not a usual partnership between Ezra and Penelope— but then, what in life is usual? They discover that they can talk about their lives freely. They’re both just in need of friendship and didn’t know that they needed each other to help get them back on track, encouraging each other to be braver and take more risks. It’s a lovely narrative, a short story as simple, bittersweet and timeless as Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In fact, thinking about it, the comparisons become even clearer: their time together is limited but in each other they reignite a spark for life, find someone they can unreservedly be themselves around, and there’s dizzying excitement mixed with the sober undertones of finality. What more could you look for in a film?

While it had serious themes, Olympic Dreams was also absolutely hilarious in the awkwardness of the characters: some of the conversations were too funny for words. Ezra is always looking for connection with others, making unbelievably awkward small talk with patients at the clinic just to make conversation. What’s pleasing about this picture is that the characters didn’t go to the Olympics looking for each other: they both had their own path and happened to find each other along the way. It’s really sweet that Ezra encourages Penelope when she’s feeling down: ‘You’re this amazing, warrior princess. You’re an Olympian!’ I’m glad that this line emerged in the film: even Olympians need to be reminded of who they are and that they’re allowed to celebrate achievements.

I’m pleased to say that, despite it holding onto romcom tropes, Olympic Dreams wasn’t predictable. The characters were far too unique for that. It might be equated to Silver Linings Playbook in which two semi-dysfunctional characters come together and embark on an awkward, self-conscious journey of dating, though I wouldn’t necessarily even refer to it as dating. They’re just being themselves, they’re a little shy of others and they’re just looking for a friend. The biggest question – what are you going to do now? – looms in mind for both Penelope and Ezra. With the age difference they can’t really be expected to stay together, but the film’s tagline — that they share a ‘special but limited time together’ — is accurate, and I got the impression that it was a truly special few days that would stay with the characters (and the actors, filmmakers, spectators) for a long time to come.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.