Gymnast (USA, 2005, Director: Edet Belzberg, 96 minutes): Filmed over a period of at least four years, this film follows three elite gymnasts as they try to qualify for the 2000 US women’s Olympic team. There is two-time national champion Kristin, serious and shy, bubbly and beautiful Alyssa, who tends to lose her concentration at important moments, and tiny underdog Morgan, who at 15 is three years younger than the other girls but twice as driven.
Competitive sports is a deeply complicated arena for young people, and the film expresses some of the ambiguities very clearly. All three young women make very clear that they are in gymnastics to pursue their own dreams and that they’re not under pressure from parents or coaches to do anything that they don’t want for themselves. But we also see coaches who are so caught up in the competition that they ignore clear signs of injury. By the time the Olympics have come and gone, none of the three seem happy, although they all made the team. Each girl came out of the experience damaged, either physically (poor Kristin undergoes the first of many surgeries for a stress fracture before the documentarian’s camera) or emotionally (Alyssa seems bitter about the whole experience, while Morgan can’t seem to string a sentence together without choking up.)
It’s hard to watch people’s dreams die, but before we start pointing the finger at “the horrible sports industry”, we have to remember that these girls chose to put themselves into competition. All of them were not only talented, but driven enough to reach the highest levels of their sport. Were they not athletic, they’d have had their hopes dashed in other endeavours, I think.
The process of realizing that our dreams are not always attainable is a painful milestone on the way to adulthood, and though it is hard to watch it unfold in front of a camera, I came away with a real respect and affection for these young people. One odd thing about the film (and this may have been deliberate on the part of the director) is that we don’t see any other aspects of the gymnasts’ lives. We see a very small part of their family lives, but nothing about school, nothing about their friendships. It’s as if they only really exist in the gym. While that may seem to be true, it’s not really true, and so I think the director uses it to heighten the tension. Later in the film we finally get to see the girls dressed in street clothes, and it’s a dramatic change.
I’m sure more than a few people will see this film as an indictment of youth sports, but I think that’s too simplistic. Athletic competition is just one more area where eager and idealistic children are forged into slightly cynical adults. That’s not a bad thing, but it can be difficult to watch. I found myself cringing watching the network footage of the competition, since I knew the injuries that each gymnast was so carefully trying to hide from the judges.