Anchoring a lesbian love story of mid-life liberation in the blunt physicality of an aerial gymnastics act, Ned Farr’s debut feature “The Gymnast” delivers emotional intensity in tastefully spectacular wrappings. Considerable sexual tension is generated when a 43-year-old ex-gymnast joins forces with a young Korean dancer, the two clambering up falls of fabric, twisting, writhing and swinging in complex, joyous routines. Winner of NewFest’s best narrative feature award, well acted, well performed pic comes off as surprisingly engrossing despite treading familiar “Lifetime Movie”-type female empowerment territory.
Unhappily married Jane (Dreya Weber, who also produced), a former Olympic gymnast whose career was cut short by an injury on the balance beam, works as a masseuse. A chance meeting with Denise (Allison Mackie), an old buddy from the U.S. team who is now a rich widow, encourages her to spread her wings.
Soon she is working hard with enthusiastic gymnastics trainer Nicole (Mam Smith), alongside beautiful Asian dancer Serena (Addie Yungmee), devising a Vegas-worthy aerial fabric act.
Helmer Farr delights in the strength and flexibility of Weber’s physique, as her character’s sense of self-worth incrementally manifests itself in her increasing control over her own body. Indeed, the entire film unfolds in the space between physicality and sexuality, the one often sliding into the other but Farr never confounding the two.
Unlike Patricia Rozema’s lesbian trapeze pic “When the Night Falls” where aerial routines are occasions for fanciful dream-spinning, “Gymnast” remains solidly grounded in the here and now. As Jane and Serena perfect their act, the attraction between the two women evolves.
Farr handles the more melodramatic aspects of the plot with commendable restraint. Serena’s difficulty in informing her adoptive Jewish parents of her homosexuality transpires almost entirely off-screen. Similarly, Jane’s contentious relationship with her husband (David De Simone) is economically captured in short telescoped scenes.
The acting is fine throughout, Weber in particular proving a master of the speaking glance. Writer/director Farr, adept at keeping dialogue to the point and at a minimum, allows thesps’ expressive gestures and body language to tell the tale.
Pic’s epilogue, tucked in and interspersed among the closing credits, erupts in an epiphany of non-verbal communication. Joyfully driving toward a new beginning, Jane is stopped by a cop and, in a wordless scene, asked to walk the white line, at which point she celebrates her liberation with a perfect balance beam routine.