Former Olympian Alexi Pappas has all the makings of a great actress, if only someone could get her to stop acting. Throughout her new film Olympic Dreams, directed by long-time partner Jeremy Teicher, she’s perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, her eyes rheumy, her face trembling, her voice cracking as she veers closer and closer to the precipice. She plays Penelope, a painfully introverted cross-country skier at the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang who faces an existential crisis when her team places near last in their event on one of the first days of competition. Left with almost two weeks to stew in her own misery, she falls into a deep depression, desperate to find new direction after flunking out of the one thing she’s spent her life preparing for. Pappas can’t be faulted for the verisimilitude of her performance—she obviously channels many of the emotions she must’ve felt when she placed seventeenth in the Women’s 10km at the 2016 Summer Olympics at Rio. The issue is that there’s precious little ebb and flow to her character arc; it feels like she’s perpetually channeling Gena Rowlands in the last act of a Cassavetes film. There are several moments—particularly a scene where she admires the medal of a winning athlete and reacts to her taking it back like a nervous mother being gently separated from her newborn preemie—where you throw up your hands and say that it’s just too much.
Even worse, she’s trapped in a movie that apes poorly from Cassavetes’ playbook. Largely improvised in just two weeks by a three-person crew during the 2018 Olympics, the film tries to reinvent Lost in Translation on a shoestring budget, throwing the lost and listless Penelope into an ill-advised and never entirely convincing romance with Ezra (Nick Kroll), a middle-aged dentist almost fifteen years her senior who dropped everything to volunteer at the Olympics after a sudden breakup with his fiancée. They awkwardly meet-cute, awkwardly flirt, awkwardly tour the streets of Pyeongchang like Murray and Johansson the backstreets of Tokyo, awkwardly have their obligatory third-act breakup (which occurs, for some reason, in the middle of the second). It’s tedious, predictable, and not a little uncomfortable due to their noticeable age difference.
The only redeemable scenes are the documentary-flavored ones where Pappas and Ezra improvise with real Olympians, the athletes’ nervous which-way-do-I-look uncertainty in front of the camera bizarrely mixing perfectly with the in-over-their-heads performances of the two professional actors. There’s legitimately interesting material here, and one wonders what a documentarian like Werner Herzog could do with a film where he interviews expectant, triumphant, and defeated athletes wandering the Olympic Village in between events. But Herzog this film is not. It’s a lumpy, mushy, emotionally uncalibrated mess. Hopefully Pappas—and what the hell, Teicher too—will move on to bigger and better things that better utilize her talents.