Even our closet gymnastics fan Judge Cynthia Boris can't fully embrace this heartwarming tale.
"Do you think it's possible for a little girl to fly?"
I'm Cynthia and I'm a gymnastics fan.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? Gymnastics, ice skating, cheerleading—put any of those in a movie and I'm there. Vicarious thrills, I guess, since I've never ever been svelte enough to participate in any of those activities. Still, I've always had a passion for watching other people defy gravity so this movie was on my watch list every time it popped up on TV. Now that it's on DVD, I've vowed to get past the sheer cuteness of little Leslie Weiner as young Nadia to see if this movie deserves anything less than a perfect 10.
Facts of the Case
In the small Romanian town of Onesti, Bela Karolyi (Joe Bennett, The Immigrants) is looking for very young girls who love to tumble for the gymnastics school run by he and his wife Marta (Talia Balsam, Without a Trace). He sees a little girl doing cartwheels on the playground and history begins right there. Nadia wants to learn to fly. Her mother is thrilled by the opportunity but her father (Jonathan Banks,Wiseguy) is less so. He wants his daughter to be a happy little girl, and he's concerned about the rigorous of training on a six-year-old.
At the gym, Nadia (Leslie Weiner) finds a friend and a rival in Teodora Ungureanu (Karrie Ullman). Together they begin climbing the ladder to Olympic fame. But climbing up is one thing—staying on top is a whole 'nother animal. After her perfect tens at the Olympics, Nadia (Johann Carlo, Quiz Show) has trouble dealing with her newfound fame.
In 1976, Nadia Comaneci did three things no one ever thought would happen. She beat the unbeatable Russian gymnasts for gold. She became the youngest All Around Olympic champion (a record that will never be broken, since the minimum age requirement has been raised). And she received the very first perfect ten in Olympic history. The perfect ten was so unheard of, there weren't even enough spaces on the scoreboard to properly display the score. But talent and athletic abilities aside, Nadia Comaneci had a special spark, an innocence that drew people to her—and that is something you don't learn in the gym.
To properly critique this '80s TV movie you must divide it in half: Young Nadia and Older Nadia.
The young Nadia portion of the movie is a real winner. Joe Bennett's Bela is so full of mischief and energy he completely steals away the first half of the flick. Actually, the entire movie is more about the relationship between coach Bela and pupil Nadia than it is about Nadia herself, and that's a good thing. Talia Balsam is adequate as Bela's serious and business-minded wife, but the wonderful actress Conchatta Ferrell is awful as the liaison to the Romanian athletics committee. Jonathan Banks is the other shining star of the first half as Nadia's loving father. Though there are some hints that he was something less than a stellar husband, I found the relationship between Nadia and her father to be warm and very refreshing.
Which brings me to little Nadia. As long as her mouth is closed, Weiner is just darling in the role. She has a marvelous twinkle in her eye and she's the perfect foil for coach Bela. Unfortunately, every time she talks it falls flat. Luckily, she doesn't talk all that much.
In defense of the young actress and all the actors in the film, the stilted dialogue is probably not the fault of bad acting but of bad directing and writing. To give the sense that we are in Romania, the dialoge is crafted to match "English with a Romanian accent." Since none of the actors have accents, we're given Slavic inflection in its stead. Sadly, instead of coming across as good American actors in Romania, it comes across as bad American actors trying to sound foreign.
Get past it and you'll enjoy the first half of this movie. It's heartwarming, its fun, and it's a life lesson to see how hard Bela and his wife had to work to get to where they are now. It's truly an underdog-makes-good movie, and I always come away from it feeling energized and ready to tackle my biggest goals. That is, as long as I shut the movie off as soon as young Nadia turns into Older Nadia.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The second half of the film is built around Nadia's achieving the perfect ten at the Olympics and her fall from grace directly thereafter. With her win, Nadia is taken away from Bela and sent to train with the National team in Bucharest. She gets fat (or rather she puts on a very awkward, unconvincing fat suit), she discovers boys, and she accidentally poisons herself by drinking bleach—or was it really a suicide attempt and a cry for help? You're supposed to feel sorry for the girl but I never felt it. The second half of the film is clunky and disorganized, as if they were trying to cram too much history into less than an hour. The two best characters in the movie, Bela and Nadia's father, are mostly absent at that point and the film suffers from the loss.
The movie ends after the World Championships in Texas where Nadia pushed herself to compete with a bleeding and infected wrist wound in order to assure her team a win. It should be the highlight of the film, but it isn't.
As for the actress who takes on the role of older Nadia, Johann Carlo…what can I say? First off, when I look at her, I see Brooklyn, not Bucharest. Second, she does this bug-eyed thing with her face that is right out of a slapstick sitcom and it drives me nuts. Any chemistry young Nadia had with coach Bela is completely gone in the second half of the film and with it most of the heart of the movie.
Forgive the stilted dialogue and the "Romanian speak" and resign yourself to Carlo's "Woody Allen does Nadia" performance. Once you're over that you'll be left with a heartwarming, enjoyable flick.
7.5 from the US judge. 5.5 from the Russian judge (figures). And from the Romanian judge it's…YES! A PERFECT 10!!!!
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