Wednesday, March 23, 2016

'The Bronze' Proves Women Can Be Bitter Washed Up Jocks Too

I love sports movies. In my personal life, at least, I have made that abundantly clear. I am a complete sucker for any story that involves the words "inspirational team" and "road to victory" - I think they're frequently garbage films, the kind of moralizing pablum that I find repugnant, and I will happily watch them until my eyes bleed. I own my own personal copies of Miracle and Remember the Titans and Chariots of Fire and Bend It Like Beckham and more. Hell, I even own inspirational sports movies for sports I don't particularly like and I own an alarming number of them in foreign languages.

The point is, I am all about the sports movies. Even if I don't actually care at all about real sports. And while I could sit here and write an entire article about how I think sports are an inherently satisfying vehicle for a film and adapt wonderfully to the standard movie story structure, that would be boring so we're not going to do that. Instead we're going to talk about another sports movie (our second this week) that subverts all of our cultural expectations about what a female-lead sports movie is allowed to do. And it's great.

You might not have heard about The Bronze, coming out as it does just at the end of the movie dumping ground that is late winter. Or you might have seen some article saying it's "Bernadette from Big Bang Theory gone wild!" Or maybe you saw the trailer and were baffled and confused by what this movie was even supposed to be. Like an R-rated version of Stick It? Is that what this is?*

The answer to all of this is that The Bronze is a very very dark comedy about an former Olympic gymnast who is living off of her faded hometown glory while being very bitter about accident that ended her career. When her former coach passes away, leaving her newest protegee and budding gymnastics star without a coach, our faded hotshot steps in (for incredibly selfish reasons) to take the reins. Only you never know if our hero is going to coach this young upstart to a gold medal or sabotage her so she crashes and burns.

If that sounds like a movie too dark for you, then you should probably not watch it. Let's get one thing super clear before we go on here: The Bronze is not for the faint of heart. It's really really not. I consider myself a hardened movie-goer, the kind of person who is perfectly happy sitting down and watching four films in a row, and even I had trouble getting this movie out of my brain. It's not that it's horrifically graphic (mostly) or that the swearing is actually that bad - it's that it's brutally emotionally honest in a way that refuses to make anything feel less than completely real.

But if the concept of a movie that actually tackles the idea that female athletes can be washed up jocks too and that women can be just as brutal and obsessive about sports as men sounds like good material for a movie to you, then you should totally give The Bronze a shot. It's fantastic. Hard-hitting, painful, and a little bit like having insults hurled at your face for two hours, but still fantastic.

And, I should mention before we go any further, it's a movie made for and about women. The star, Melissa Rauch (who, yes, does play Bernadette on Big Bang Theory) wrote it with her husband, Winston Rauch, specifically to address issues of fame and identity. It's a very personal movie for them, and it's also the best acting you are likely to see this year. Seriously, Rauch is astonishing in this, even if watching her is like watching a train derailment in slow motion.

It may sound like I'm being hyperbolic here in describing how this movie feels, but trust me I'm not. The more detailed plot synopsis is this: Hope Ann Gregory (Rauch) won a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics when she was a teenager. She was called the "Angel of Amherst, Ohio", partly because she was adorable, but mostly because partway through the competition she broke her foot and kept going, a true symbol of American inspiration and perseverance and blah blah blah. Literally the first scene of this movie is Hope watching a tape of her own performance in the 2004 Olympics and masturbating to it. Just so you get an idea of how this movie goes.

Eleven years later, Hope is still living off the glory of that bronze medal. She lives at home with her father (Gary Cole) in the house that her sponsorship deals bought them before those deals dried up. Her life consists of trading on her last dregs of fame to get free pizza at Sbarro's and a milkshake at the local diner. Her father is a mailman and Hope sometimes breaks into his truck and steals money from people's mail. In other words, her life is a sad mess, and it doesn't show much sign of improving.

Not even her father's reminder that he's retiring soon and his pension won't be enough for them to keep the house can get Hope to shape up. She's a spoiled child in a woman's body, a foul-mouthed, gutter of a human being who screams at her father and refuses to listen to anything he says. Basically, she's a monster, but she's a monster who is uncomfortable to look at. She's not funny awful, she's depressing awful, because it's so easy to see how Hope got this way.

She's even worse now, we come to realize, because it looks like her time in the sun is just about up. Amherst, Ohio has a new star in the making, the incredibly talented Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson). Maggie is training at Hope's old gym with Hope's old coach, and everyone says that she has a chance to win a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Toronto. The way Hope sees it, Maggie's victory will just be a nail in the coffin that is her life.

So when Coach Pavleck commits suicide unexpectedly and leaves Maggie with no coach and Olympic trials approaching, Hope isn't sure how to feel. On the one hand, the closest person she had to a mother has just died, and even though they hadn't spoken in years, Hope seems visibly perturbed. On the other hand, Maggie won't be able to go to Toronto so she won't surpass Hope so Hope can live peacefully. Silver lining, right?

Actually, no. A few days after Coach Pavleck's death, Hope gets a letter from the deceased coach with a special request in it: Coach Pavleck wanted to make sure that Maggie's future was in the best possible hands. And for some insane reason she thinks those hands belong to Hope. 

Hope refuses to do it until her father reads down to the part of the letter where it says that if she does this, Hope will inherit half a million dollars. But only if Hope coaches Maggie through to Toronto. And so Hope is sold. With half a million dollars she won't have to worry about money or get a job or jealously guard her legacy. She'll be set for life. And technically nothing in the letter says anything about making sure that Maggie wins...

It takes only a little bit of browbeating for Hope to convince Maggie and her mother, Janice (Cecily Strong), to make her the new coach. Even the owner of the gym where they train, a childhood "friend" of Hope's named either Ben or Twitchy depending on who you ask (Thomas Middleditch) is on board. Everyone wants Hope to suddenly become this inspirational figure and use her amazing talent to help the next generation.

That is not what happens. 

What happens instead is some uncomfortably hilarious sabotage. With Hope's help, Maggie stops actually doing any exercises and instead starts eating like a maniac, gains about thirty pounds, gets a boyfriend, and generally does the exact opposite of what an Olympic athlete should do in like any situation ever. When the Olympic team coordinator comes to check on Maggie after six weeks, he's horrified to find her completely unfit to compete (and completely and utterly stoned).

Hope would be super okay with this, but the thing is, if anyone else coaches Maggie she doesn't get the inheritance, a fact that is only now dawning on her. So if the coordinator, Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan) takes Maggie away from her, she loses out on everything. No freaking way.

From there it's just a matter of making sure that Maggie and her mom don't jump ship, and then it's time for Hope to actually put on her big girl pants and teach Maggie how to be an Olympian. And maybe, just maybe figure out how to be a human being along the way.

But if you're hoping that this movie ends nicely with Hope completely at peace with herself and her past and super copacetic about everything, man should you probably watch a different movie. This movie does not give you a nice pat ending, and that's a good thing, even if it doesn't feel like it.

Probably the thing that most struck me about The Bronze was actually how I realized it's a movie I've never seen before. Or rather, it's a movie I've only ever seen with a male lead. 

I've seen plenty of films about male athletes staring their own obsolescence in the face, being asked to give up their own glory to coach the next generation. Lots of movies where the male anti-hero is a jerk who sabotages their protege. Film after film where our male lead is unlikable, borderline abusive, a horrific jerk living off the glory of their one shot at the sun. These movies are comedies and tragedies and everything in between.

You know how many movies like that I've seen with female athletes? This one. That's it.

While we as a culture are slowly and reluctantly coming to admit that women can be athletes too, and even more slowly recognizing that traditionally feminine sports are hella difficult and impressive (like gymnastics, figure skating, and cheerleading), we haven't spent much time thinking about female athletes as people. And we've spent pretty much zero time considering female athletes once they retire.

I guess one of the things I really loved here is how Hope might be a monster, but it's easy to see how she got that way. This movie is an unflinching look at what happens when you have a sport where the competitors have to be trained pretty much from birth, forgoing all school and normal childhood activities, where they're taught to value athletic achievement above everything else, and where their careers can end with a brutal, life-altering injury at the tender age of fifteen. What the hell kind of adults do these kids grow up to be? Well, if this movie has anything to say about it, not particularly well adjusted ones.

The glimpses we get of Hope's childhood are genuinely alarming for all that her father is a nice sweet old man now. It's awful watching Hope verbally harangue her own dad, shattering a "World's #1 Dad" mug she made him in elementary school, but it's worth pointing out that, well, he kind of deserves it. She made that mug because he told her to do it as a Father's Day activity in her homeschool. If Hope is a monster, it's because she has nothing else to possibly be.

The film makes it clear that Hope was raised all her life to be an Olympic gymnast, though it never really tells us why. We know that Hope is severely uneducated, to the point of being unable to do simple arithmetic or read well. She has literally no marketable skills and even fewer interpersonal abilities. In other words, Hope as an adult has very few options outside of the sport she can no longer do. It's not hard to see why she's bitter and angry and lashes out. It doesn't make her behavior okay, but it changes her from being just some bitch to being a rather tragic figure.

In contrast, Ben, the guy who owns the gym and who has a very sweet crush on Hope, is a much more well-rounded adult, probably because his gymnastics career never took off. He had skill, they point out, but he has an uncontrollable facial tic that would have cost him with the judges, so he never pursued it very far. Ben has gone to college and come home and worked several jobs and is a nice, pleasant man, if a little shy. He's had a normal life, and it's worked out well for him.

So clearly a lot of this movie is a tragicomedy about a woman whose future looks pretty damn bleak. But there's other stuff in here as well. There's a sweet love story between Hope and Ben, a hilarious rivalry between Hope and Lance, and a complex but intriguing relationship between Hope and Maggie. This, with Hope's ongoing sparring with her father, leads to a film that is less about the sport itself and more about the people who do it and the people who make it happen. It's a character piece, narrow in its focus and completely all about Hope, but that doesn't make it bad. It makes it brilliant.

The thing about Hope is that up until the last minute of the movie you really don't know which way she's going to go. You never actually know if she's going to sabotage Maggie or not, if she's going to go back to her old ways and keep trying to live off her old glory. It's brilliant because for all that we see Hope slowly changing, she's still clearly a conflicted figure, and that makes for great drama.

I won't spoil the ending (hell, I've only barely told you what happens up to the mid-point), but suffice to say that you will not see it coming. And not in some cheesy twist ending kind of way, just in a really well-written, obvious in retrospect but still gut-wrenching kind of way. You should probably go watch it so you know what I'm talking about.

Just. There's so much to unpack in this film and I've barely scratched the surface. There's an entire other article here on how Hope is a mentor to Maggie and how both of them share a mentor, Coach Pavleck, making this the rare film where there are three different all-female mentorship relationships and no one is related to anyone else. Which is just hella unusual. 

There's an article on Hope's view of sex and sexuality and how it was clearly warped by her status as a public figure at such a young age, and the way that some sports (like gymnastics) are sexualized to an uncomfortable degree even though the athletes are literally children.

There's a lot here, is what I'm saying. The Bronze might not be a movie for the faint of heart, but that doesn't mean it's a movie no one can love. Personally, I think it's brilliant. I really do. I think this movie should become a gold standard (heh) for complex representations of women in the media. It's a comedy, but it's also one of the most honest portraits of an unlikable person I've ever seen. The word "unflinching" comes to mind, and it's accurate as hell.

Before I go, I do just want to point out (completely as an aside, this has nothing to do with anything really) that this year seems to be one for very inventive sex scenes? Between The Bronze and Deadpool, I'm not sure who had the best/weirdest sex montage, but it's a pretty close call. Deadpool's was funnier, but The Bronze's was more athletic and involved a naked man using a naked woman as a pommel horse. So, you know, keep and eye out for that one. Is this the year of the super weird sex scene? We'll have to keep track.

Okay, but kidding aside, I do think this is a movie that will ultimately go down as a classic. It's an inherently feminist film, if for the simple fact that it reminds us that women are people too. Women are people, and that means that women are capable of just as much awfulness and pride and petty jealousy as men are. We're not angels. We're blood and flesh and bad decisions. Hope Ann Gregory isn't a nice person, but she is just that: a person. She's a woman who I feel confident really does exist, and there's nothing more feminist than admitting that, even if we would never ever want to meet her.

The Bronze is a reminder to get your heroes off that pedestal before they rot there, and I can definitely see their point.

*I'm seriously not kidding. If it is a movie about sports, chances are I have seen it and loved it even if I also think it is terrible. Stick It is amazing and I saw it like four times in theaters.


  1. This sounds so funny. and I love a good sports comedy. You a fan of Blades of Glory and Dodgeball because they may just be my two favorites!

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