‘Olympics Dreams’ Offers a Look Inside the 2018 Winter Olympics…and Love
I’m always fascinated by what people in the industry can do with such limited resources. It’s a constant reminder that filmmaking is a marvel. And also that it’s hard. Incredibly hard. Amazingly, for Olympic Dreams, director Jeremy Teicher, Alexi Pappas, and Nick Kroll were the first to shoot a movie during the Olympics in the Athletes Village with hardly any embellishments.
The three-person crew (they were the only people who could get credentialed for the occasion) traveled to PyeongChang to film their project in 2018, preparing for a whirlwind experience to get all the footage they needed within the few weeks. However, if any individuals were to accomplish this feat successfully, Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas might be at the top of that list. Back in 2017, the duo released the film Tracktown, which was filmed in Eugene, Oregon, including many scenes at Hayward Field, the U.S. Mecca of track and field. It also helps that Pappas is actually an Olympian and represented Greece in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio in the women’s 10km.
Tracktown and Olympic Dreams follow similar templates. The obvious being that they follow an athlete with the backdrop of a heralded sporting venue, but both also show an athlete in the middle of a coming-of-age tale.
In Tracktown, a lonely athlete named Plumb (Pappas), who is training for the Olympic Trials, is forced to take a day off after suffering an injury, only to become romantically interested in a local baker as she wanders around town. In Olympic Dreams, an equally lonely athlete Penelope (once again played by Pappas) looks for some sort of connection in the Athletes Village in PyeongChang after she is finished competing as a cross-country skier. This time, she becomes involved with Ezra, a volunteer dentist working at the event played by Nick Kroll, who recently went on a break with his fiancé. Together, Penelope and Ezra search for purpose and affection during the world’s largest sporting stage. (This is an indie movie, so naturally, two lonely souls have to find mumblecore love.)
Teicher, Pappas, and Kroll make good use of whatever resources they had, opting to shoot Olympic Dreams in a faux-documentary format — one handheld camera that closely follows both Kroll and Pappas for a very natural aesthetic. It’s difficult to say how much prep work was done before shooting the film or if they had a fully-formed script before touching down in PyeongChang. I do know one thing, however: the PyeongChang Games lasted from February 9th-February 25th in 2018, so the trio realistically had a little over two weeks to get all the footage they needed.
To compensate, much of the scenes are clearly improvized, where there might be a beginning point and a desired endpoint that fits into the outline of a script that was created, but it’s up to the actor to figure out how to get there. Olympic Dreams effectively uses its space, documenting the daily lives of Olympians through its naturalistic love story. You see athletes hanging out, eating, getting treatment, or, in the case of Nick Kroll’s character, get their teeth checked.
At times, Kroll even acts as an onscreen documentarian, asking questions to the athletes in the middle of the conversation, further blending the line between fiction and documentary. (Side note: despite moving towards acting in more dramas recently, it’s very strange to see Nick Kroll playing it straight after recently binging Big Mouth. I almost always expected him to break out the Coach Steve voice.) Gus Kenworthy, a silver medalist in the 2014 Sochi Games, even gets involved in the story at one point, offering a solid non-actor acting performance.
Though I must admit that, ultimately, the behind-the-scenes machinations — the production notes, the location, the blending of real and fake — is far more interesting than the actual movie, which is a very uneven, underwritten love story that may have been a little too ambitious.
Given his comedy and improv background, getting Nick Kroll involved was a savvy move. With Olympics Dreams‘ constraints, Jeremy Teicher certainly didn’t have time to go full-Kubrick and have Nick Kroll shoot ninety takes of sliding something across the table. Rather, Teicher needed Kroll to come up with something on the spot that fulfills everything that is needed to progress the film along in a natural way. Still, it’s a very tough task that Kroll often struggles with; you can see the gears turning in his head as he tries to think of something on the spot. Or, more specifically, you can see the subtle upward movement of his eyes towards his forehead as if he’s attempting to search his brain for the right thing to say. But when compared to his co-star, Alexi Pappas, you can tell that he’s far more prepared to handle it as he takes the lead in a lot of the scenes that they share together.
Pappas is noticeably struggling to find her footing at the beginning of the film. It’s clear that this is new territory for her as an actor, and, unfortunately, I couldn’t help but join her in that uneasiness as I watched.
With the extenuating circumstances at play in Olympic Dreams, it’s unfair to broadly say that the acting is “bad”. Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, the film that starred the real-life heroes who stopped a terrorist attack onboard a train, is a good comparison in this way. Those men were thrown into a difficult spot as non-actors, and Eastwood isn’t exactly known to be the best with actors given his penchant for shooting every scene as quickly as possible and wrapping on production for the day before lunch. You would never categorize their acting as “good”, but it was also a limited critique to say that they were at fault. For Kroll and Pappas, their work isn’t ideal, but it’s quietly amazing that this movie and their performances are even the slightest bit coherent, to begin with.
Consequently, the romance plot is half-baked at best. Luckily, Kroll and Pappas get more comfortable as the film goes along, leading to some cute bits here and there, though the romance angle is always using shorthand. The generic beats of a romance story are there: a meet-cute, a few whimsical moments with music playing, a falling out, you get the picture. They happen coherently, but with little genuine affection attached. As the relationship “heated” up, I found myself wishing for more footage of athletes going about their routines and competing.
There’s no question that Olympic Dreams is one of the more interesting recent behind-the-scenes stories you’ll hear, but honestly, I’d rather watch a hypothetical documentary about the making of Olympic Dreams than the movie we got.
This review is part of our coverage of the Denver Film Festival.
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