Guerilla filmmaking is at its most charming in the sweet-’n’-salty Olympic Dreams, a melancholy romance that is a little bit Lost in Translation crossed with a potential first installment of a new Before Sunrise, etc, soap opera, only set at four-year intervals. Which I would love to see.
Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas — a long-distance runner who competed in Rio in 2016 — was invited to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang as part of the IOC’s Artist-in-Residence program to make a series of short films about life in the athletes’ village. She brought along her husband, filmmaker Jeremy Teicher (they’d previously made 2017’s Tracktown, about *ahem* an Olympic runner, which you can watch on Amazon Prime [US|UK]), and actor and comedian Nick Kroll (The Secret Life of Pets 2, The House). They ended up making a delightful and delicately observed feature, shot in the two-week span of the Games, with Teicher serving as director as well as his own nimble crew, using a script improvised by the three of them. And shot, of course, in the wild midst of an Olympics fortnight.
And so we are graced with the bittersweet tale of Ezra (Kroll), a volunteer dentist — (!) who knew there was such a thing at the Olympics, and yet it makes perfect sense — and Penelope (Pappas), a crosscountry skier. Her event is on the first day of the Games, which leaves her adrift in the weeks after, plus she’s feeling isolated and alone. He’s “on a break” from his fiancée and so also feeling a bit lonely. They find each other, rather randomly and accidentally; there’s no meet-cute here, just several awkward stumblings through trying to make a connection with someone, anyone, in this strange place that throws people from all over the world together in a moment of drama and excitement, but also a moment of vulnerability.
For what comes next? What does it mean to achieve your dream, especially at such a young age? Everyone else onscreen, everyone Penelope and Ezra interact with, is a real athlete who was competing in 2018… and they’re all so achingly young, and basically playing themselves, at a glorious physical peak but also at an uneasy psychological moment, as plenty of them are willing to confess, or to skate around confessing in a way that nevertheless lets you see their terror. If nothing else, this is a fascinating and intimate insider-y look at life in an Olympic village the likes of which we haven’t seen before, one that Pappas, as a recent Olympian, has a unique perspective on.
But then there’s Ezra, who is 15 years older than Penelope — she’s 22; he’s 37 — and that’s a little icky at first. But the age gap is an acknowledged thing here, unlike so many other movies presented to us as comparatively easy romances even while there are too many years between a couple. The different stages they are at in their lives is a genuine a barrier to any relationship Ezra and Penelope might forge. And yet they find some common ground anyway. This is infinitely more interesting than movies that ignore that.
There is a documentary sensibility to Olympic Dreams, a byproduct of its on-the-fly production, that’s only a good thing. The feeling that we are watching something that wasn’t consciously concocted only adds to its authenticity. I was initially leery of this movie’s “first feature shot in an Olympic Village” gimmick, but it transcends that in all possible ways.