Completed in early 2021 and the decade before, Elie Grappe’s self-assured first scripted feature, “Olga,” was not intended to be about Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine. Today, however, it is impossible to view the film, about a tough but vulnerable young Ukrainian gymnast in exile, through a different lens.
Anyway, it no longer matters whether Grappe wanted to examine the consequences of Western complacency towards the enemies of democracy. Here we are, and here’s this quietly poignant film, a heartbreaking reminder of the cost of individual lives and dreams.
At the level that matters least, “Olga,” written by Grappe and Raphaëlle Desplechin, is a sports drama propelled by some of that subgenre’s conventions. At the age of 15, Olga (Anastasia Budiashkina) has the talent and determination to reach the Olympics. But like any Rocky or Rudy, she faces a steep path.
Look at the montages, but this time it’s news footage of political struggle. Olga’s mother (Tanya Mikhina) is a journalist whose investigation into the corrupt, Russian-backed government has put her and Olga’s life in danger; half-Swiss, Olga flees to Switzerland to train further. As the 2013-14 Maidan uprising engulfs her loved ones in Kiev, her family abroad is scornful. Opposing loyalties tear her apart inside.
For Olga, as for Ukraine, the stakes are clear: East or West, resignation or self-determination. Budiashkina, a Ukrainian gymnast in her acting debut, plays Olga beautifully as a guarded, stubborn teenager with the weight of exile on her shoulders, who refuses to stop but needs her mother, who lies stone-faced on the mat but still in her a hug. Unfortunately, we know that whatever solution awaits, her problems are far from over.
Not judged. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theatres.