Last year’s Athlete A is a harrowing and heartbreaking documentary about the extensive abuse committed by the team doctor for the USA National Gymnastics team. In searing detail, the film recounts how girls who thought they were going in for a routine exam or basic medical advise were subjected to horrific and criminal sexual abuse. The film’s most memorable scenes, however, are those in the courtroom after the doctor is arrested for his crimes as the young women he abused (for many of them had grown up by then) come forward with victim impact statements to assert their strength, resilience and courage in the face of such incredible trauma. It’s a difficult film to watch, but one that reminds us that predators very much lurk among us, and they’re often the people we’re supposed to be able to trust the most.
In Charlène Favier’s feature directorial debut, Slalom, the filmmaker approaches a similar dynamic with a similarly devastating turn of events, only this time the focus is on one young athlete and the coach who takes advantage of her trust and confidence in him. Where a documentary like Athlete A lays bare the hard-to-stomach facts and repercussions of such abuse, Slalom and its nuanced narrative deftly navigate the emotional rollercoaster inherent in these circumstances, how a young victim might internalize the events out of an unconscious attempt at self-preservation. Featuring a devastating performance by Noée Abita as a young skier who is forced to grow up far too fast, Slalom cuts to the very core of the damage inflicted on a young girl’s fragile emotional development.
At 15 years old, Lyz Lopez (Abita) is a prodigy on the slopes, selected for an intense training program under the supervision of Fred (Jérémie Renier), once a champion himself and now the coach to some of France’s most promising athletes. His training style is intense and no-nonsense, often tearing the athletes down in an effort to get a better performance out of them. No one expects Lyz to succeed, including herself; she’s the daughter of a working-class single mother and together they’re a far cry from the elite, wealthy athletes and families who otherwise populate the program. Initially, Lyz crumbles under Fred’s stern criticism and withers as he harps on every little detail of her performance. But the thing about authoritarian adults to a kid who just wants to be loved is that they’ll work their ass off to impress them, which is exactly what Lyz does, taking Fred’s words to heart and practicing that much more intensely as a result.
Something is awry between Fred and Lyz from the beginning, though on the surface it all seems innocent enough. She goes to his office for a weigh in, where he asks her to undress to her undergarments. Business as usual, right? He asks about her diet, her social life, her menstrual cycle. All things a coach should monitor in their star athlete, right? Maybe, but Favier imbues each seemingly insignificant moment with such menace that we can see where this is going long before Lyz can. So when it all escalates one night when Fred forces himself on Lyz, her shocked silence and confusion is really the only way a child could respond to such an unexpected turn of events from an adult she’s grown to deeply trust. Though Renier is a sufficiently creepy abuser, it’s Abita who truly captivates as she internalizes all the trauma, certain scenes nearly unwatchable as we experience her experiencing the abuse in real time. Without a word, we understand her confusion, fear and even acceptance as her innocence is shattered by a man who is supposed to be someone she can look up to.
Nothing about what Fred does is OK in any way, and Slalom understands that. But Fervier goes beyond the outright criminality of his actions to investigate the deep effects they have on Lyz as she tries as best she can to make sense of things. Someone only does those things with you when they love you, she’s certain. And it must be love, the way Fred’s singled her out as his star athlete, deserving of extra attention and feedback. It’s a coping mechanism, the only way she can continue to practice under him or perform on the slopes. As her skiing improves, so does her self-confidence. What Fred has done to her is an experience that will never leave her, but by the end of the film, it’s clear that she will survive the trauma, stronger by far than she was when we first met her. It’s never easy to watch a film centered on the kind of exploitation at the heart of Slalom (or Athlete A, for that matter), but by bringing us into the emotional experience of the young victim, it becomes a more than worthy exercise in just how deep these wounds go well after the act.
Slalom is now streaming in virtual cinemas, including through Music Box Theatre.
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