The Gymnast

cast: Dreya Weber, Addie Yungmee, David De Simone, and Allison Mackie

director: Ned Farr

90 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
TLA DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Gymnast

The Gymnast, much like many films deemed to be of GLBT interest, is part of a genre. It tells the story of a former Olympic gymnast who is lifted out of a mid-life crisis by a new career as an aerialist. As she discovers her new career, and draws fresh confidence from that discovery, the gymnast comes to realise that she has feelings for her fellow performer. This prompts much soul-searching as both aerialists struggle with the psychological and moral challenge of coming out of the closet as an adult.

What elevates The Gymnast above the vast majority of GLBT indie films is not simply its competent wrangling of genre tropes but its willingness to engage those tropes in conversation in a way that generates intriguing insights into the human condition. The Gymnast is not merely an intelligent film; it is a visually beautiful one too… though perhaps not in the ways that you might expect.

Jane Hawkins (Dreya Weber) was once a world-class gymnast. She won national titles, a place in the media spotlight and the right to represent her country at the 1984 Olympics. However, when Jane’s moment to shine finally came around, she crashed out to a horrific injury that ended her career. Fast-forward 20 years and Jane is working as a masseuse. She is married to a good-hearted but ultimately self-involved man (David De Simone), she goes jogging every day, and she works out in order to maintain the frankly astonishing physique that once propelled her to the top of the world of gymnastics. But Jane is also profoundly unhappy.

In fact, she is so unhappy that she has taken to trying to ‘oops’ her unwilling husband into getting her pregnant in the hope that a child might change their relationship dynamic. One day, Jane is called out to a large house in Malibu where she meets up with her old gymnastic partner, the wonderfully sassy Denise (Allison Mackie). After remembering the old times, Jane steps back into a gym for the first time in 10 years only to be overwhelmed by nostalgia and regret when she sees a trainer working with a young girl. Jane turns and flees only for the trainer to catch her up and invite her to join her in a little project: one of those aerialist display teams who suspend themselves above the ground and use lengths of silk to assume poses and perform tricks as part of a carefully choreographed routine.

Jane is valued by the trainer for her physical power while Jane’s partner Serena (Addie Yungmee) is valued for her dancer’s grace. The two practice together for a while without really gelling until the trainer is called away when her son is injured. For a while, Jane returns to her depressing home life: she bickers with her disinterested husband, she keeps trying to get pregnant, and she generally becomes more and more miserable. Then, Serena calls and asks if she would like to start practicing again.

Without the shared friendship with the trainer serving as a buffer between them, Serena and Jane are forced to work together more intimately as they train and construct their routine. Slowly, a deep friendship emerges between the two women. A friendship tinged with something else. Something that makes them both feel profoundly uncomfortable when the sassy Denise suggests that the routine should end with a kiss. Eventually, the pair do kiss, and Serena reveals herself to be a lesbian. This is when things start to become interesting.

Rather than presenting Jane’s sexuality as a matter to be dealt with by ‘coming to terms with oneself’ and then ‘having the courage to be true to oneself’, writer-director Ned Farr makes Jane’s choice a much more subtle one. Indeed, upon realising that something is going on, Jane’s husband tries to mend his ways and comes round to the idea of having a child with his wife. This means that instead of being a choice between dishonesty and self-actualisation, Jane’s choice as to whether or not to leave her husband and come out is presented as a choice between different but ultimately equal lifestyles. If there is anything to choose between the two lifestyles it is that Jane’s life with her husband has been tinged by disappointment whereas a life with Serena promises all the naked promise of the blank slate and the fresh start. This characterisation makes the decision to come out a far more subtle one as there is a very clear sense in which Jane is turning her back on a relationship that only really needs a bit of a tune-up.

Jane’s reticence to come out or, rather, to leave her husband – the two choices are not necessarily equivalent as, while the film implies that Jane goes off to live as a lesbian, the only labels that are applied to Jane herself are ‘straight’ and ‘bi’ suggesting, again a far more nuanced vision of human sexuality than the Manichaean gay/ straight divide present in most indie gay films – is neatly reflected against Serena’s decision to come out to her parents. Serena is just as fascinating a character as Jane as, while she remains in the closet as far as her parents are concerned, Serena lives the life of an adult lesbian. Jane and Serena’s pact to both ‘come out’ at the same time serves as an elegant reminder that not all exits from the closet are equal: Jane leaving her husband is far more tricky than Serena coming out to her doting parents, thereby stressing not only the difference between coming out as an adult and coming out as a teenager but also the sense that Jane and Serena’s pact is not completely equal.

Indeed, when Jane drags her heels over leaving her husband, Serena not only turns her back on her but also brokers a deal with a Vegas casino to replace Jane with a younger model. The film does end with Jane driving to meet Serena in Vegas but it is also clear that she is going on her own terms. A fact reinforced by the stunningly beautiful end credits scene in which Jane gets pulled over by a cop and, upon being told to walk along the white line, performs an impromptu gymnastic routine, thereby suggesting that she is not going to Vegas as an aerialist but as the gymnast she was before her injury and marriage.

It is a damning indictment of our impoverished critical vocabulary that, all too often, films with merely decent cinematography and visual composition are described as ‘beautiful’. This is not to say that films such as Lebanon (2009), and Valhalla Rising (2009), are not genuinely beautiful to look at, it is just that they represent only one particular form of cinematic beauty. Unlike Lebanon and Valhalla Rising, The Gymnast has cinematography that is never anything more than competent; it is reasonably lit, the shots are well framed, the focus is good and the composition is pretty good without ever being particularly striking.

The Gymnast’s beauty lies not in its cinematography but in its use of recurring visual motifs. For example, a couple of the characters not only carry pocket knives but pointedly set their pocket knives down when they have to do something scary but nonetheless important. This suggests that while the pocket knives symbolise confidence, it is a confidence of a somewhat self-consciously artificial variety. You carry a knife to make yourself feel powerful but there are also times at which you need to be powerful and be powerful purely on your own terms.

Also fascinating is the use of the long red silks used in the aerial performances as a way for the characters to suspend themselves above the unhappiness and dishonesty of their mundane lives. Indeed, it is telling that Jane and Serena’s first kiss is not only associated with the act but also the result of practicing for the act. These visual motifs elegantly blur the edges of the characters and introduce the suggestion that, while the film is all about sexuality and coming to terms with oneself, a lot of these questions are bound up in issues of self-deception and the adoption of socially convenient social personae. It is one thing to tell a story bout oneself but it is quite another for other people to be able to make sense of that story.

Truth and falsehood are seldom evident in most matters and it follows from this that it should be just as difficult to separate truth from bullshit when it comes to addressing questions of identity such as what kind of person we are, what kind of life we want to live and what kind of person we would ideally like to be having sex with. The Gymnast is a film full of genre tropes but it is also a film that seems to realise that genre tropes can serve to simplify complex questions and thereby neuter what would otherwise be insightful human dramas.

Another interesting aspect of the film is its depiction of the female form. Most gay indie films are not only about but also aimed at gay men and casting decisions seem to be made on the basis of very strict and conventional conceptions of what is and is not attractive. Indeed, pick up a gay indie film and you are more likely than not to encounter a grown-up man with rugged good looks, an entirely hairless body and the kind of sculpted abdominal musculature that comes only with frequent trips to the gym and extensive use of diuretics.

By and large, lesbian films tend to be much less dull in their casting decisions but The Gymnast is a film that not only features a woman who is a). quite muscular, and b). in her forties as a romantic lead but also actively celebrates the beauty of her body. Indeed, while Yungmee’s Serena is undeniably a beautiful woman, Farr’s camera never strays far from the striking Weber and that is quite genuinely courageous in a marketplace that seems intent upon rewarding films that stick very closely to mainstream notions of beauty.

The Gymnast comes without any DVD extras at all. Boo!