Completed in early 2021 and set the decade before, Elie Grappe’s confident first scripted feature, “Olga,” wasn’t meant to be about Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine. It’s impossible today, however, to watch the film, about a tough but vulnerable young Ukrainian gymnast in exile, through another lens.
Just as well: It matters little now whether Grappe meant to examine the consequences of Western complacency toward democracy’s enemies. Here we are, and here is this quietly poignant film, a heartbreaking reminder of the cost in individual lives and dreams.
On the level that matters least, “Olga,” written by Grappe and Raphaëlle Desplechin, is a sports drama, propelled by some of that subgenre’s conventions. At 15, Olga (Anastasia Budiashkina) has the talent and single-mindedness to reach the Olympics. But like any Rocky or Rudy, she faces a steep path.
Cue the montages, only this time, they’re news footage of political strife. Olga’s mother (Tanya Mikhina) is a journalist whose investigations into the corrupt, Russian-backed government have endangered her and Olga’s lives; half-Swiss, Olga flees to Switzerland to continue training. As the Maidan uprising of 2013-14 engulfs her loved ones in Kyiv, her family abroad is dismissive. Opposing loyalties tear her insides.
For Olga, as for Ukraine, the stakes are clear: East or West, resignation or self-determination. Budiashkina, a Ukrainian gymnast in her acting debut, plays Olga beautifully as a guarded, stubborn teenager with the weight of exile on her shoulders, who refuses to quit but still needs her mother, who is stone-faced on the mat but still cries into a stuffed animal. Sadly, we know whatever resolution awaits, her troubles are far from over.
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