I think it’s safe to say that youth sports has never been as popular as it is right now. At the same time, it has become as addictive and consuming for grown-ups as crack cocaine. Where ‘win at all costs’ and ‘forsake all else’ mentalities are increasingly prevalent and drive many adults in charge and in the stands. We also live in a world where horror stories such as the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal are painful realities and monsters like Larry Nassar are able to prey on child athletes for 15 years.
We see these two issues converge in director Charlène Favier stinging feature debut “Slalom”. With a bracing and unflinching honesty, Favier details the vile, calculated sexual exploitation and abuse of a teen skiing prodigy by her much older adult trainer. The snow-covered French Alps make for a beautiful backdrop and setting, but don’t let it fool you. Favier never hides her movie’s intention so we know exactly where the story is heading. Incredibly, she’s able to turn predictability into a strength as she forces her audience to not only watch in discomfort, but to understand how our failures as adults have such devastating effects on our children.
A fiercely committed Noée Abita plays 15-year-old Lyz Lopez, a talented and ambitious downhill skier recently accepted into a prestigious skiing academy known for churning out champions. As the movie begins we see her already a part of an intense training regimen led by the school’s tenured ski coach Fred (played by Belgian star Jérémie Renier). He’s a product of a familiar mold – a coach who is hard, abrasive and insulting especially to his new trainees. “He crushes you, you listen and you get better.” Over time he has them starving for any scrap of approval he throws their way.
For Lyz, skiing is her passion and she wants to be the best. But when asked why, all she can muster is “I just want to.” It’s a telling moment that speaks a heartbreaking truth. Lyz is essentially alone. She has an absent father and a self-absorbed mother (Muriel Combeau) who is more interested in her new boyfriend and nice-paying job in Marseille. So she skis. Perhaps for validation. Maybe to prove herself. Either way, it leaves Lyz vulnerable to Fred who the movie slowly reveals to be monstrously skillful at manipulating his young prey. His slithery psychology is chilling to watch.
Soon Fred is crossing boundaries that make us squirm in our seats yet is so deceptively persuasive to Lyz, leading her to comply despite her discomfort. It has to be okay. After all he’s her coach. He’s an adult. He’s on her side. Of course he’s looking out for her. All are reasonable thoughts for any young girl to have. But the gross reality is that these vile predators exist and Favier uses her film to remind us of that harsh truth. Meanwhile Favier is subtly yet constantly emphasizing Lyz’s innocence. Her camera will often cut in close to show Lyz’s wide-eyed youthful gaze. Or we get scenes showing her catching snowflakes on her tongue or letting out a childlike giggle when she’s given a new pair of skis. It makes what we eventually see all the more repulsive.
Make no mistake, there are moments in “Slalom” that are extremely difficult to watch. At times you’ll want to turn your head and look away. Renier, a veteran of several Dardennes brothers films, has a knack for giving very natural and unvarnished performances which proves to be a real asset in fleshing out a character who by necessity is deeply rooted in reality. Renier’s grounded authenticity reveals the devious layers his character – his facade of respectability, his ability to veil his motives, the way he uses Lyz’s improvement on the slopes as a means of controlling her. It’s made more unnerving when put together with the earnestness and vulnerability Abita brings to Lyz.
“Slalom” is a gut-wrenching dose of realism that should leave any adult with a working moral compass uncomfortable, appalled, and enraged. There are a couple of short and needless angles that add more to the ‘mature’ rating than to the actual story. But those aside, the movie maintains a razor-sharp focus and a deep sense of conviction. It takes its subject seriously and forces its audience to do the same. It’s the kind of treatment this material needs and it speaks to an issue that can’t be allowed to continue. “Slalom” is now showing in select theaters and virtual cinemas.
VERDICT – 4 STARS