I’ve never been a big sports guy. In point of fact, you’d need an electron microscope to measure my interest in athletic competitions. I suppose that comes from growing up as a mostly indoor kid, but as much as I don’t care about participating or observing sports, I have to give credit where credit is due.
To excel in sports – at all – is a kind of miracle. Doing that requires a level of commitment to a singular goal, a degree of physical fitness that most of us will never reach in our lifetimes, and the ability to make complex bodily adjustments within a millisecond. Those people, and there are so few of them, are genuinely amazing.
The most amazing of all, to my mind, are figure skaters. The human body simply shouldn’t be that flexible. A human being shouldn’t be able to fly through the air while spinning and land on a single point. Yet, they do. What it takes to become a skilled figure skater is both astounding and nightmarish. Veera W. Vilo has a keen understanding of that dichotomy, and she’s written, produced, and acted in Free Skate, an uncompromising look at the sport, its victories, and its costs.
The police find the Figure Skater (Veera W. Vilo) unconscious on a snowy road in Finland. She’s severely frostbitten. She’s been beaten. She’s lucky to be alive. They whisk her to the hospital and, while going through her belongings, find contact information for her Grandmother* (Leena Uotila).
The Figure Skater has been away from Finland for years. She’s turned away from her home country and culture, and since the death of her mother, she’s turned away from her family. Instead, she embraced a life of unimaginable struggle in Russia. Her Grandmother understands this, and gives her a home.
With time comes healing. As the Figure Skater reconnects with her Grandmother, she yearns to return to skating. However, she wants to do it on her terms. A successful audition with Finland’s premier skating club earns her a spot. She learns that, unlike the harsh and nearly sociopathic training methods back in Russia, her new Coach (Karoliina Blackburn) and Choreographer (Miikka J. Anttila) push her in the most positive of ways. She even develops a tentative friendship with her Ballet Teacher (Saara Elina).
But there’s a problem. There always is. The Figure Skater has the precision and athleticism to be a champion. Not the heart. That’s blocked. To become a champion, she’ll have to face her past due to an inquisitive Reporter (Beata Harju). She’ll have to deal with her Father (Jevgeni Haukka) who forced her into prostitution. She’ll have to discover if all of the pain and all of the sacrifices were worth it to skate.
A Hollywood movie about figure skating would attempt to take most of the edges off, and become something like Green Book, a film that’s both inoffensive and ineffectual. Free Skate doesn’t do that. Director Roope Olenius isn’t interested in a fist-pumping, feel-good, Rocky on ice type of thing. Nor does he want to rub the audience’s nose in the Figure Skater’s misery. He’s made a methodical and honest look at what it takes to become a champion figure skater. We see the Figure Skater obsess about her form, her weight, every conceivable detail she can control and a few she can’t. To me, the life of a figure skater looks awful. I wondered if the Figure Skater even enjoyed skating, and the film seems to tell us that she hates it until she loves it. That feels accurate.
An American film about this subject matter would probably tack on a subplot concerning a rivalry with the main character. As the screenwriter, Veera W. Vilo has made a more sophisticated choice. Her screenplay is outstanding, and she reveals characters based on their behavior, rather than poorly placed monologues. The Figure Skater competes against her physical limitations, and the tendrils of her past that snake around her. She deals with a father who forces her into unspeakable encounters. She collides with vile men who don’t understand and don’t care that she’s shaped her body into an instrument finely calibrated for figure skating. We see her struggle, fail, struggle, fail, struggle, succeed, and sometimes wonder if it was all worth it.
Uniformly, the cast delivers performances that are never showy and always honest. Veera W. Vilo leads them as the Figure Skater. Her performance is so specific and lived in, I initially assumed she’d been a figure skater. It turns out Vilo was a gymnast in her native Finland, and she based both the screenplay and her performance on her own experiences. It shows, and she uses those experiences to show two things. First, she plays the Figure Skater as an Everyathlete. The Figure Skater could be any budding athlete enduring inhuman training and sexual abuse. Vilo also sells the specificity of her character, the moments of deep vulnerability and enormous strength. It’s a complex performance that deserves to be honored.
When it comes to sports, perhaps the miracle doesn’t appear when athletes excel. Perhaps the miraculous occurs as they survive and grow stronger. Free Skate is thoughtful and brave filmmaking. It shows us an individual journey that spectators and athletes can surely relate to. This is an outstanding film.
*I know, this is one of those movies where none of the characters actually have a name in order to make it feel like the experiences are more universal.