Describing a movie as “sweet” may be interpreted by some as damnation with the faintest praise. But, really, there is no more appropriate adjective for “Olympic Dreams,” an engagingly wistful dramedy about opposites attracted while adrift far from home. Set against the backdrop of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where indie filmmaker Jeremy Teicher multitasked in semi-guerrilla, one-man-band style as director, cinematographer and sound-recorder, it glides gracefully across stretches of familiar territory and pleasant surprises, propelled by the appealingly complementary lead performances of Nick Kroll and Alexi Pappas, who share co-scripting credit with Teicher.
Teicher was granted freedom to film in around the Olympic Village, where athletes, officials and trainers were housed, as well as at various competition venues, and Pyeongchang eateries and night spots. As a result, there is a virtually nonstop sense of cinema verité-style verisimilitude throughout the film, greatly enhancing the illusion — or is it an illusion? — that we are watching real-life events unfold while fictional characters blend seamlessly into the picture. Echoes of “Lost in Translation” abound, but not so much to be anything more than an occasional source of mild amusement.
Penelope (Pappas) is a cross-country skier who’s simultaneously excited and scared as she prepares for her first Olympic competition. Ezra (Kroll) is an outgoing but neurotic dentist who has volunteered his services at the Olympic Village. Their first meeting is hardly cute, since she is too tightly focused on her upcoming event to appreciate his awkward attempts to ingratiate himself to a fellow American.
Don’t misunderstand: Ezra isn’t exactly flirting. He has a fiancée back home, and even though they’re in the middle of a long-distance “time out” that wasn’t his idea, well, the guy remains hopeful.
Fairly early on, Penelope does poorly in her competition, leaving her with little or nothing to do for several days until the Games conclude. Meanwhile, Ezra also finds himself with an abundance of time on his hands. Naturally, the two strangers in a strange land repeatedly cross paths in the Olympic Village, and something like a friendship starts. Each is mulling the possibility that, after a long pursuit of a personal goal, some thought must be given to a Plan B. And as the movie progresses, to paraphrase Tom Stoppard’s memorable line in “The Real Thing,” each slowly realizes that such a contingency plan might involve being someone else’s possibility.
What follows is not so much a mating dance as a passive-aggressive pas de deux, with the normally introverted Penelope sporadically overcompensating with stabs at being a wild child, and Ezra clearly conflicted about taking what for him would be an uncharacteristic step out of line. (The age difference between them — she’s 22, he’s 37 — isn’t pressed too hard in the dialogue, but there are unmistakable signs that it’s a factor in his thinking.)
As the push-pull proceeds toward an ending that hits the sweet spot between the inevitable and the unexpected, Pappas (a newcomer who actually did compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics) and Kroll hit all the right notes in a pitch-perfect duet. A love song? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a melody that could spark shocks of recognition for anyone who has ever wandered past nodding acquaintanceship toward the possibility of a close encounter while in a far-off place, or even a different time zone, where it was hard to tell what rules really still applied.