What has higher stakes than the Olympic Games? Athletes spend their entire lives training for one or two events that occur once every four years and are often over in minutes.
So it’s a little subversive that the romantic comedy Olympic Dreams has such low stakes. Filmed in a cinema-verite style in the Olympic Village during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea by director Jeremy Teicher, Olympic Dreams is part of an initiative by the International Olympic Committee to create artwork about the events. Teicher does use his unprecedented access to film parts of the 2018 games witnessed by most of the world, including the opening ceremonies and some competitions. But he spends most of his time showing us the parts of Olympic life we never see: the athlete dorms, the cafeteria, medical facilities, and even an empty stadium.
These aspects of the games are inherently interesting, but rather than explore the drama of the spaces, Olympic Dreams reduces them to backdrops for an unremarkable and highly improvised romance. Real-life Olympian Alexi Pappas plays Penelope, a cross-country skier whose dreams have stalled after she fails to place in an early event. In her malaise, Penelope encounters nerdy volunteer dentist Ezra (Nick Kroll), still reeling from a recently-dissolved engagement.
From there, you can guess the plot, because it’s the exact same as any other basic romance story: Penelope and Ezra have an initial botched meeting, they have a magical date, they have an argument based on a misunderstanding, and then they come together with a giant confession/argument.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with basic genre beats. All genre films have to grapple with these expectations. But Teicher treats the novelty of the setting as enough to make its beats interesting, and it isn’t — especially when the leads have so little chemistry.
A gifted comic actor with a talent for outrageous characters, Kroll seems particularly hamstrung, underplaying the emotional fallout of his character’s failed engagement. Too often, Teicher leaves Kroll to do ad-libbed bits about the importance of dental care with athletes who aren’t game to play along. We get the sense that these bits should be funny or charming, but the interactions lay flat on the screen.
Pappas fares much better, playing the vulnerability of Penelope’s disappointment against her competitive confidence that she can always do better. She shines in her various missteps, powerfully communicating her character’s optimism when she leans forward to kiss a fellow skier (Gus Kenworthy) and her embarrassment when he politely declines.
In fact, the genuine chemistry between Pappas and Kenworthy is the most damning element of the film. We actually enjoy watching those two interact with one another, whether its playfully picking out potential dates for Penelope or calling out her rude mistreatment of Ezra. No matter how much conviction Kenworthy brings to his observation that she and Ezra are bristling with attraction, he cannot dissuade us from what we see on screen.
As with its compelling setting, Olympic Dreams misses the interesting romance and hits the blandest possible target, thus failing to win our sympathies or attention.