Olga (Anastasia Budyashkina), age 15, is a good enough gymnast to be in the running to make her national team. When not focused on her Tkatchevs and her Jaegers, however, she acts pretty much like a lot of other teenagers: she likes to goof around with her teammates, squabbles over trivia with her mother, and has no pressing concerns beyond her success at gymnastics.
Everything changes in an instant when the car driven by her mother is rammed by another car, and only by some fancy maneuvering is she able to get herself and her daughter to safety. It was no accident, but an assassination attempt, because it’s 2013 in Kyiv and Olga’s mother is a journalist who has published articles critical of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and his regime.
Because Olga’s father (now deceased) was Swiss, she’s able to move to Switzerland and train at the national gymnastics center at Magglingen, while her mother remains behind in Kyiv. So now Olga has a whole new set of circumstances to deal with, from unfamiliarity with any of the national languages of Switzerland to catty behavior from her new teammates to a less-than-understanding reception from her father’s relatives, who think the Maidan Revolution is just a lot of unnecessary violence over a simple political disagreement.
No one gets to be a top gymnast without being able to compartmentalize, and Olga continues to excel in her training while also staying in touch with her mother and her friends back home through video chats. As the political situation in Ukraine worsens, she’s able to follow it all on the internet (real-life documentary footage is included in these segments), which gives rise to guilt over training for sport in a foreign country while her mother and her countrymen are risking their lives for freedom in her birth country. When she’s forced to choose between Ukrainian and Swiss citizenship (Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship), Olga is torn between doing what is best for her sports career in the short term, and loyalty to her mother and her country.
Olga, the first feature film by Elie Grappe, presents a realistic picture of high-level gymnastics training, aided by excellent, unfussy cinematography by Lucie Baudinaud and expert editing by Suzana Pedro. Realism is also heightened by the inclusion of real-life elite coaches and gymnasts, including Budyashkina (who competed internationally for Ukraine as a junior), Sabrina Rubtsova (playing Sasha, Olga’s best friend on the Ukraine team), Caterina Barloggio, Théa Brogli, and an uncredited Mélanie de Jesus dos Santos. Most of the gymnastics seen is of the backstage variety, which makes perfect sense—elite athletes spend far more time practicing than they do in competition, and the process by which one achieves excellence is, to me at least, as interesting as seeing the final result in the form of a world-class routine.
Grappe and co-writer Raphaëlle Desplechin keep Olga from becoming a routine sports drama by keeping a firm focus on the human side of the sport, as well as the geopolitical situation in which their central character finds herself embedded. The young gymnasts have excellent presence and deliver convincing performances, and the friendship between Olga and Sasha is particularly heartfelt. | Sarah Boslaugh
Olga, which won the SACD Prize at Cannes, is opening theatrically in the U.S. on June 24 at the Quad Cinema in New York City, before expanding to select theatres nationally. Further information is available from the distributor’s web site.