An uncommonly resonant sports drama in which a talented yet troubled gymnast comes to terms with a turbulent past, “White Palms” proves a distinctive and absorbing third feature by Szabolcs Hajdu, working from autobiographical elements involving his brother — and pic’s star — Miklos Zoltan Hajdu. With its universal themes of ambition, dislocation and achievement, pic deftly balances arthouse ambitions with commercial in such a way that both fests and distribs will be equally enthused.
Story opens with the arrival in 2001 Calgary of Miklos Dongo (Miklos Zoltan Hajdu), a broodingly handsome Olympic gymnast who’s been hired to coach Canadian hopefuls at the Altadore Gymnastic Club.
As he settles in, athlete remembers his brutal early 1980s Hungarian training regimen under diabolical coach Puma (Gheorghe Dinica ) and the pressure to perform exerted by his enthusiastic but insensitive parents (Oana Pellea, Andor Lukats). Young gymnast Orion Radies limns the role of Miklos during these nearly wordless and hypnotic workouts, reminiscent of the tough physical obstacle course in Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail.”
Back in Canada, Miklos strikes one of the athletes and, as punishment, he is assigned to coach the moody but immensely talented Kyle Manjak (real-life Olympic medalist Kyle Shewfelt). At first confrontational, their relationship deepens to a friendship that is tested when they face off on the apparatus during a Hungarian World Championship match.
This climactic sequence is intercut with the earlier adventures of Miklos (now played by Radies’ older brother Silas), who runs away from home to join Russian acrobats in a traveling circus when he is 15.
Following the contempo meet, the adult Miklos returns to Las Vegas to resume his work as part of a Cirque du Soleil troupe.
An online synopsis suggests that at one time this story was envisioned as a linear narrative. Yet it’s difficult now to imagine pic in any form save its current, exhilaratingly fluid blending of past and recent present. Images from across the years follow one another with logical progression, though auds primed for a easily digestible story of winners and losers will have to concentrate to sort out the eras.
Though he told a Budapest aud he doesn’t think he’ll star in another film, Hajdu’s an easygoing natural with a sculpted physique who has a promising thesping future should he so choose. Romanian vet Dinica (“Philanthropy”) is aces as the crafty and sadistic Puma, with the Radies brothers exhibiting eloquent dignity in the face of his cruelty. Shewfelt’s canny mix of ego and affability rounds out the fine cast.
Tech package is first-rate, led by dazzling montage of Peter Politzer and Monika Esztan’s perceptive period production design. “White Palms” was a late-fest revelation at recently-concluded Hungarian Film Week in Budapest, copping prizes for editing, producer, director and, ex aequo, cinematography and the coveted Gene Moskowitz Critics’ Prize.