One night, the police come upon body on the side of a dark, icy highway. It's a young woman, face down on the asphalt, in a costume and an "eastern block jacket." A gym bag lies by her side. She is out cold, but there's a pulse. She's alive.
Cut to a scene of practice in a skating rink, highs school girls stretching and gossiping, their revelry interrupted by hoodlums who brutalize one enough to rip out a hank of blonde hair. Her teammate looks on, horrified. A coach comes out of his office and is punched in the stomach before he can intervene. He could get up, but doesn't. He lets the hoods wreak their havoc.
Cut to a hospital, and a girl in bed, injuries tended to by doctors. It's not the blonde girl but her teammate. She's told that she's going away to recover at her grandmother's house in another country. Her grandmother is jovial and welcoming, and soon after the girl embarks on a training course in skating. Her trainers taunt her; one chides her for being "fat." The girl is sullen, and resigned, but keeps at it. She puts up with the tough love because "I just want to skate."
We watch the skater gradually regain her self-esteem and compete. And start to win. And get noticed. At which point a TV reporter requests an interview with this "new" talent. On camera, the reporter ambushes her about her past: why has the skater "jumped" countries? Why has she left a renowned career in Russia to grace humble Finland?
Because remember: there's still the issue of that body on the side of the road, dressed in an eastern block jacket…
Does my synopsis reveal too much? No. Free Skate plays with time, and is about to backtrack to show us what's been withheld. The story is about to open up.
Free Skate is a Finnish production directed by Roope Olenius. It's his second feature, the first being Tuftland (2017). The screenplay is by Veera W. Vilo, whose background is music, medal-winning gymnastics, and acting: in fact, she portrays the protagonist of Free Skate, named simply the Figure Skater. Olenius and Vilo are married, and are a team to watch.
They do an impressive job with a small budget. The first section is naturalistic to seem amateurish. Dialogue goes from Finnish to Russian to English, and readings are a little clunky. But from the TV interview on, director and writer/star show control of the narrative. Production values improve: blocking gets intricate, colors sharpen, edits are more purposeful. A style emerges, or if not a style, at least an intent.
The characters are appealing as well, from the loveable grandmother (Leena Uotil), to the coach and choreographer (Karoliinan Blackburn and Miikka J. Anttila) who believe in our protagonist before knowing who she is. Ms. Vilo especially commands as our focus. She brings a desperation to small moments, especially in that first section described above. She goes from doughy to lithe, flying agilely across the ice, and projects grace. The pivot in plot comes at about the halfway point in Free Skate's runtime. By then we've settled into the human drama and developed sympathy for the characters, largely due to her compelling performance. The look she flashes the camera in the final shot sends chills.
The era of the action is unclear. Production took place 2019-2021, but its technology is old-school analogue, which works to its advantage. The Skater's story would be undercut by social media, her whereabouts easily tracked through the smartphone. In fact, there's not a phone in sight. Practice music is on a CD in a boombox. Grandmother's VHS player blinks and whirs and shows a young woman, a skater, being celebrated at the top of her game, who looks startingly like our protagonist. At this point we realize that the Figure Skater is more than she seems. It's a clue, exposition parsed out in small details. We get much info in a sauna scene with the Skater and her grandmother, the two women naked and making room on the bench for the relationship that connects them. The generational chain has been broken. The link, the mother, is absent. And the father, the grandmother says, has gone crazy.
The press kit describes this as a "thriller;" it’s not that, exactly, at least by Hollywood standards. There are no thrills per se, no daring rescues or narrow escapes. But it's something more subtle. It brings to mind the 1979 film Breaking Away (U.S., directed by Steve Teich). That too achieved a balance between the human story and the one rooted in sports. Free Skate is by no means in rah-rah "Gonna Fly Now" territory; it veers in its second act into a kinder, gentler Black Swan.
And as such, it ends up, for all its ambition, a little too tasteful. Or is it timid? Its topic hits hard: corruption at its basest, both political and psychological. Betrayal by those who should protect. Its climax localizes a conflict whose implications are much vaster -- much more than those implied in this review -- and doesn’t really solve the Skater's dilemma. Did the filmmakers bite off more than they could chew, or do they want simply to attract to the widest audience?
Free Skate takes some surprising narrative paths before settling into a conventional plot. It's inventive and daring in its way. But for all its pleasures, the film pulls back when it should spin and soar forward into a fateful arabesque.
Free Skate. Directed by Roope Olenius, written by Veera W. Vilo. 142 minutes. Finland, 2021. Bright Fame Pictures. Released to theaters.