If your knowledge of figure skating comes primarily from watching the Winter Olympics on TV, you can be forgiven for thinking that skaters live in a glamorous world of glitter and lace, of graceful spins and perfectly-executed leaps. The reality is quite different—the finished product you see at major championships is the result of years of toil, and for every skater who survives the training, many more are destroyed by years of physical and emotional abuse, of restricted eating and training on injuries, and perhaps by even more abusive demands specific to female skaters.
Roope Olenius’ Free Skate takes a hard look at the darker side of figure skating through the character of a competitive Russian skater (unnamed, so I’ll just call her “the skater,” played by Veera W. Vilo, who also wrote the screenplay). We first see her as an unconscious and beaten body being unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road in Finland, still wearing her Russian national team jacket. Fortunately, she’s discovered and taken to the hospital, and her Finnish grandmother (Leena Otila) comes to take her home. The skater recovers and receives an offer to resume training in Finland, and so she sets about trying to rebuild her career and her life.
Free Skate is almost didactic in drawing a distinction between the abusive, results-centered training methods used in Russia and the more humane, athlete-centered approach of Finland. In an early scene, we see a large, fur-clad female coach who just might remind you of Eteri Tutberidze, a Russian coach famous for reliably producing young female skaters with quad jumps whose careers are just as reliably cut short by serious back injuries. True to form, the Russian coach berates skaters who make mistakes, accuses them of being obsessed by food, and observes that “fat doesn’t fly.” In another scene, two female skaters are forced to stand outside in the snow clad in only their underwear.
Even from the safety of Finland, the skater still feels she must assure a costume fitter that she can lose a few centimeters, and confides in a friend that she hasn’t had a menstrual period for years (Female Athlete Triad, anyone?). When a practice session is not going well, she’s astonished that the Finnish coaches, rather than yelling at her or ordering her to do more repetitions, tell her that she should do something nice for herself to get her mojo back. It’s the difference treating young athletes like disposable goods or as talented people who want to become the best version of themselves—one approach may produce more champions in the short term, but the other produces better human beings.
Free Skate is beautifully shot by Mikke Kaurio, and skating scenes involving the central character are cleverly framed to disguise the fact that Vilo was a world-class gymnast, not a skater (I suspect Belgian skater Loena Hendrickx, listed as a stunt double, supplied the more high-powered skating). There are many views of acrobatic and balletic training as well, and backstage moments that will be catnip to anyone interested in the sport. On the downside, the storytelling can be bit shapeless, and there are jarring contrasts in tone and abrupt cuts that don’t serve the film well. This is particularly true in the final third, when we see what the skater was expected to do to “pay for” her place in the national training program, and it feels like a horror segment grafted into an otherwise naturalistic sports drama. I have no doubt that such things have happened in elite sports programs, but that’s a belief formed from other sources of information rather than because this film convinced of their plausibility. | Sarah Boslaugh
Free Skate is available on VOD beginning Feb. 28 from numerous platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play iNDemand, and DISH.