RiverRun 2018: WHEN SHE RUNS

Sports film conveys the unique true-strangeness of life

The RiverRun International Film Festival is a regional event based in Winston-Salem, NC and is one of the premier film festivals in the southeastern United States. The 20th annual RiverRun was held April 19–29, 2018.

Is there any more blatantly metaphorical physical activity than running?

Just take a moment to think about all the times you’ve run in your life, and then think about how many of those times weren’t out of some kind of necessity.

When She Runs is a sports film, after a fashion. But it doesn’t operate in the way audiences expect a sports film to operate. It has little interest in the spirit of competition, but every interest in the actual cost of aspiring to be not just a superior athlete, but one of the best.

It’s a movie that takes the old axiom that 99% of victory is mental, and does its level best to transform it into images. It’s sports film as character study, and to capture the very specific psychological mood it intends to investigate, filmmakers Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck exercise the exact same focus and discipline that their heroine does.

Until they don’t.

Kirsten (Kirsten Anderson, who also cowrote the script with the directors) is an aspiring Olympic athlete, deeply dedicated to her goal. And the film follows her in the days leading up to her qualifying trial, as she attempts to retain that discipline in the face of temptation and her own self-doubt.

If you’re looking for pathology you’re out of luck; the film has little interest in what drives Kirsten, or how she got to where she is. Like running itself, only the present moment matters.

Before we even see her we hear her, in the rhythmic form of footsteps beating against the belt of a treadmill spinning at dangerous speeds, emanating from a blank screen. It isn’t a fade, but a hard cut to Kirsten on a treadmill, her controlled breathing telling the audience everything they need to know about her, if they can even hear it.

And the shot lasts nearly two whole minutes; it is nothing less than the filmmakers’ shot across the bow, the first example of the deceptively dispassionate formalism that will wind up being the film’s surprising mechanism for generating suspense.

With its static, carefully composed camera and clockwork-like sense of editing (brief establishing shot followed by minute-long verite snippet from Kirsten’s life), the first half of the film establishes Kirsten’s routine, a decidedly Spartan one of intense workouts, bland meals, and days working at a shaved ice stand.

When the shift happens, it is so subtle that it may not even register at first, as during the birthday party there is actually a cut within the scene, the first time an edit doesn’t indicate a leap forward in time.

This leads us into the second half of the film, where everything seems to collapse in on our heroine in tiny ways that snowball until the future she’s worked so hard to achieve seems to be in serious danger. And the filmmaking responds in kind, subtly switching to a near imperceptible handheld camera and switching to a more elliptical style of editing that shatters time into discreet fragments of rolling existence.

It’s a bold technique that manages to create tension less from outside events but through subtle visual moves that highlight Kirsten’s dangerously heightened sense of anxiety.

If there’s a drawback to such dynamic, impressive filmmaking, it’s that the acting can’t quite match up to it. As our self-named heroine, Anderson gives an impressively precise physical performance and conveys a certain sweetness in her scenes. But her delivery of dialogue can be very hit-or-miss. She gets away with it, in that the physical aspect is far more vital than what she has to say. But Ivan Gehring, as her ex and the father of her child, never quite manages to make his scenes land as well as they should. Their argument after she calls him out on his passive aggressive undermining at her attempts to maintain her diet at the birthday party is hampered by his less-than-convincing line readings.

That this does little to hamper the effectiveness of the film is a credit to what Machoian, Ojeda-Beck, and indeed Anderson herself have accomplished here. When She Runs will absolutely be an acquired taste. But for those looking for a unique, true-to-the-actual-strangeness-of-life take on the sports film, there’s nothing out there quite like it.

Previous post THE SEVEN-UPS Blu Review: A Thrilling Entry in a Loose FRENCH CONNECTION Trilogy
Next post RiverRun 2018: SEVERINA and MOSS Offer Two Interpretations of the Femme Fatale