***Originally published on The Film Experience***
Olympic Dreams, starring comedian Nick Kroll and real-life Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas, is both innovative and a little mundane. Shot behind the curtain in Olympic Village during Pyongyang, it’s a romantic two-hander set against the 2018 games, and a real deep-dive into that unknowable subculture. Blurring the lines between narrative and documentary, with many athletes and employees playing themselves, director Jeremy Teicher is a one-man band capturing the unglamorous side of the games. The dorm-like bedrooms, spare game rooms, and impending doom of life after it’s all over, the feeling that it’s all fleeting. As enjoyable as it is watching them canoodle, so is the movie at times.
It’s well-known by now how many Olympic athletes have performed and performed well for their country, only to come home to medals and not much else. Much like servicemen, in fact. That pall hangs over the proceedings, even when things get cute, such as when volunteer dentist Ezra (Kroll) and cross-country skier Penelope (Pappas) meet cute in the middle of a cavernous food hall. Or when Penelope and Olympian Gus Kenworthy (one of the first openly gay Olympic male athletes) strike up a real friendship while the cameras are rolling. Gus is a natural in front of the camera and should pursue more acting gigs. That is, when he’s not putting Mike Pence on blast. On occasion, Teicher dabbles in well-worn territory, the victim of a genre that’s seen too many imitations of Blue Valentine, stylistically or otherwise. But Teicher has two actors with soul to spare, and to unveil to us over the course of a brisk 90 minutes. Kroll proves he can do more than douche it up (Sausage Party, Parks & Rec) or snark it up (everything else), and Pappas far surpasses any expectation one might have for an athlete looking to act. They’re both genuine performers with a deep well of feeling, not to mention a certain inscrutable chemistry together. You might ask, how do we buy that a 22 year-old athlete would buy into Kroll’s dorky, middle-aged charm? The answer is loneliness.
Above all, Olympic Dreams is about the idea that every man and woman we meet is potentially fighting their own battle, suffering their own wounds, prone to insecurity and isolation no matter who they are or where they are. Even in a busy menagerie like the Olympic Games, Penelope has found that it’s not quite what the commercials and four year-long training made it out to be. For Ezra, it’s a dream come true undone by a fiance-ish back home with designs on leaving him. They find each other on the other side of the world, and for a few days anyway, they’d rather be nowhere else.