SXSW Review: ‘OLYMPIC DREAMS’ fills the screen with humor, romance and possibilities

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James C. Clay // Film Critic

OLYMPIC DREAMS

Not Rated, 85 minutes
Director: Jeremy Teicher
Cast: Alexi Pappas, Nick Kroll

Shooting a narrative film at the Olympics seems like an impossible task, but not for filmmakers Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas (TRACKTOWN) who had unprecedented access to the Olympic village at the 2018 Pyeongchang games in South Korea. They recruited actor/comedian Nick Kroll (UNCLE DREW) to join their project, titled OLYMPIC DREAMS, and became a three-person film crew. They crafted the story moment-to-moment with a rough outline that was based on an experience Pappas – who is an Olympic long-distance runner – had at the Rio games in 2016. The film takes a naturalistic approach to find the story, which fills the screen with humor and possibilities. 

We meet Penelope (Pappas), a cross-country skier who’s on the verge of everything she has worked for in life coming to a head. She’s about to embark upon her first Olympic race and is seemingly having a bout of existential dread. Pappas said in the post-screening Q&A, “I can just tell an athlete is gearing up for a race by the look on their face.” We enter this world through her perspective and the anxiety feels all too real.

OLYMPIC DREAMS bridges the gap between athlete and artist; the weighted sensation of self-doubt is inextricably linked between the two professions, and the chance of making it may never happen. Pappas has a stoic yet warm presence while playing Penelope; she’s clearly a confident individual, but is about to approach a crossroads in her life. 

She meets Ezra (Kroll), a volunteer dentist who is on the outs with his fiancée. He first comes off as kind of annoying, as he is constantly asking her questions as she is preparing for the race. But deep down both are desperate to connect in a setting that’s inherently romantic, with some of the world’s best athletes all in one place. 

Lonely, and not too sure where he stands with his partner, the duo embark on an intimate kinship where the lines of attraction and friendship are blurred. They keep running into each other and the awkwardness turns into friendship.

Nick Kroll, left, and Alexi Pappas star in ‘OLYMPIC DREAMS.’ Courtesy of SXSW.

The film relies on humor, and the improvisational skills of the two actors to carry the narrative beats forward, but the filmmaking trio find sexiness in unexpected places. OLYMPIC DREAMS not only focuses on a relationship, but a subculture of the olympic games that very few individuals get to see. To say that a place or a setting is a “character” is cliche’, but Teicher and Pappas use that cliche’ and turn it into a curious exploration of how people adapted while they are out of their natural habitat.

The filmmaking form is constantly being challenged by artists like Teicher and Pappas, who infused their creativity into a project that, by all intense and purposes, could be misconstrued on the surface. However, OLYMPIC DREAMS find truth in this filmmaking experience that could and should be replicated again by the duo after this project and TRACKTOWN. I can’t see how these filmmakers will fit into one box as they appear to be artists searching for a challenge. 

Grade: B

OLYMPIC DREAMS is seeking distribution.