While the dead center of the frame is prime real estate for any film, it takes on particular importance in Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s latest film “When She Runs,” where their lead character Kirstin (Kirstin Anderson) will often command the middle, as much for the benefit of your attention as hers. Yet as an Olympic-level sprinter, there’s an irony to Kirstin being so often seen in the same spot, trapped even when she’s alone since she’s at her best when she’s in motion and while the world around her keeps spinning, she appears to be running in place. Even if she isn’t on the track, you can see her mind racing as she continually sizes up her situation, with one of the most damning moments in the film finding herself entombed at a birthday party, her eyes going dead as she’s surrounded by happy revelers to whom she’s related by blood but now seems not to share any connection at all, unable to participate since her rigid diet won’t allow her to eat the cake.
“When She Runs” is hardly the first to interrogate the competitive drive of an elite athlete, yet it is singular in looking at the cost, envisioning life as it really is for most Olympic aspirants who fight to get the spotlight even after waiting four years to get the opportunity to compete. With an unforgiving training regimen including punishing weight room sessions and ice baths, Kirstin is saddled with a full-time job that doesn’t pay and squeezes in a part-time gig at the local sno-cone stand to support herself financially. Gradually, other facets of Kirstin’s life start to push their way into the film, not unlike the way they have to force themselves into her own consciousness and watching her reckon with everything that happens off the track where she has no control versus her steely determination in her sport virtually reinvents “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in suburban Utah.
Dueling personalities are just one part of the constant sense of revelation that’s embedded throughout “When She Runs,” which pulls off the tricky feat of giving a greater sense of how incomplete Kirstin feels her life is as you get a more complete picture of it. Machoian and Ojeda-Beck hide a relentless narrative drive under a low-key naturalism, using the premise of just being dropped into Kirstin’s life as an opportunity to build suspense with the small details that naturally arise as she goes about her days leading up to the Olympic trials, particularly when it comes to her familial obligations. Like their previous film “God Bless the Child,” there’s also an undeniable sense of authenticity as one can be sure every frame is carefully composed (a sparse credit list also makes sure to include colorist J. Cody Baker, whose work greatly contributes to feeling Kirstin’s isolation), but simmer with vitality that comes directly from the unique way of working Machoian and Ojeda-Beck have built up over the years, involving members of Machoian’s real-life family and collaborators, including Anderson, that one suspects the directing duo would describe in similarly personal terms. None of the cast in “When She Runs” may be actors by trade, but are clearly comfortable enough with each other, and increasingly so with a camera after participating in other films from the directors, to allow for an intimacy that’s mesmerizing to watch.
Anderson, in particular, feels attuned to her character in a way that goes far beyond sharing the same first name onscreen and off. Given a co-writing credit with Machoian and Ojeda-Beck, she turns Kirstin into a ticking time bomb where the countdown can rarely be heard aloud, quietly accepting one personal aggravation after another in pursuit of her goals. In other films, these might be considered fuel for the fire or sacrifices for greater glory, but in “When She Runs,” they are wounds from which you don’t know if she’ll fully recover. At the end of “When She Runs,” you get powerful sensation of seeing someone own the screen in Anderson, but the gutwrenching uncertainty of whether Kirstin is owned by her circumstances, the tension of which lingers long after leaving the theater in this thrilling drama.
“When She Runs” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Tribeca Film Festival at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park on April 20th at 8:45 pm, April 21st at 3:15 pm, and April 28th at 8:45 pm. It will also play at the Atlanta Film Festival on April 21st at 4 pm at the Hilan Theatre and the Nashville Film Festival on May 12th at 4:30 pm and 17th at 8:15 pm at the Regal Hollywood Theater.