White Palms

2006, Movie, NR, 102 mins


Hungarian writer-director Szabolcs Hajdu's fluidly told story of the rise and fall and rise of a troubled Hungarian gymnast is a sneaky delight that glides effortlessly between the past and present without a single detour into either the uplifting clichés of American sports movies or the creepy voyeurism that sometimes attends films about young, well-built athletes.

Calgary, Canada, 2001: Former gymnast Miklos Dongo (Miklos Zoltan Hajdu, the filmmaker's brother) arrives in Canada to take a coaching job at a gym owned by his friend Kelly (Jerry Gibbons). But Dongo lacks the patience for working with undisciplined youngsters, and as the product of a brutal state training program in 1980s Hungary – which we see in lengthy flashbacks to his ordeal at the hands of sadistic Coach "Puma" (Gheorghe Dinica) -- is accustomed to harsh physical discipline. When Dongo slaps a boy during class, the parents not only want him fired, but prosecuted as well. Kelly works out a deal and Dongo allowed to stay as a private coach to Kyle Manjak (Olympic medalist Kyle Shewfelt), a sullen, hugely talented teenager who refuses to train. Kyle and Dongo get off to a bad start but eventually become friends, and working with Kyle inspires Dongo to begin training again. His own childhood career, during which he won one medal after another, was cut short when he escaped Coach Puma's tyranny by joining a Russian circus as a trapeze artist. Now approaching 30, Dongo realizes that if he wants to compete as an adult, he needs to do it soon.

The Hajdu brothers both studied gymnastics as children and Miklos went on to a professional career – he's playing a version of himself – which is no doubt why the scenes of Dongo's childhood training have such a dreamy intensity. And the film's climax, which cuts back and forth between the 16-year-old Dongo (Silas Radies, whose younger brother plays Dongo as a ten year old) making his dangerous debut with the fly-by-night Aurora Circus and the 2002 competition that takes him back to Hungary for the first time in years is nothing short of riveting. (In English, Russian and subtitled Hungarian) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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