Although most immediately what you can’t believe about “Olympic Dreams” is the fact it actually exists, shot in the Olympic Athlete Village during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang guerilla-style with director Jeremy Teicher operating his own camera and boom mic, what becomes surprising as that shock wears off is the unexpected premise that a pair of lonely hearts would find themselves unable to fully enjoy it, consumed with anxiety about having no one to share it with before finding each other. In fact, the unusual setting refreshes such a time-old tale, just as Teicher and the film’s star Alexi Pappas did three years ago with the tender coming-of-age drama “Tracktown,” checking in on the real-life runner’s medal aspirations while she really was part of one of the best track teams in the country at Oregon.
To say that Teicher and Pappas take things a step further in “Olympic Dreams” is putting it lightly, not only actually taking place at the Games and rechristening Pappas as a cross-country skier named Penelope, but adding Nick Kroll to the mix as Ezra, a dentist who brushes up on his Korean to serve as a volunteer to tend to any Olympian’s dental needs. One suspects having a master improviser around helped the Teicher and Pappas make the most of setting a film right inside the action, but in fact, the emotional set-up is as impressive as the technical one when Penelope, stranded in a country where she doesn’t know the language nor seemingly any other members of her national team being pretty socially awkward, loses her qualifier almost immediately. Besides acknowledging the harsh truth of the Games that all but a very few walk around the Olympic Village without a medal around their neck after devoting their lives for this moment that may never come again, the film uses the quick loss to give Penelope the time to explore the Village from the dining hall to the game room where other athletes all can be seen in their element, whether it’s with their head down in concentration for the competition or goofing around trying to let off steam.
Some of the very best moments in “Olympic Dreams” come from these surreptitious interactions with the athletes, whether it’s the Grecian or Estonians who sit in Dr. E’s chair to hear about hygiene or Penelope palling around with Gus Kenworthy, a U.S. freestyle skier playing a variation on himself, but in fact there is real magic between Pappas and Kroll as kindred spirits, looking genuinely awestruck at times not only at the excitement around them, but to be in each other’s company. You would hardly know about any filming limitations from what Teicher captures or how naturally the film flows with editor Pete Ohs knowing both when to linger on a sensitive moment and to keep the energy going (Penelope’s race intercut with Ezra asking various patients whether they knew whether she won is a particularly strong sequence) and Jay Wadley’s sprightly score emphasizes the fun of the situation, even when it may be elusive to Penelope and Ezra before they bond.
Once the two connect, there is additional lyricism in what the two are able to pull from each other and as Penelope tells her new partner-in-crime after he confesses a regret that “You can either look at something as a complaint or a goal,” you realize that in pairing an athlete’s mentality with an artist’s imagination, the filmmakers behind “Olympic Dreams” articulate a truly beautiful way of looking at the world, all the more so in pulling the curtain back on parts of it we’ve never seen before.
“Olympic Dreams” will screen at SXSW on March 12th at the Alamo Lamar D at 1:45 pm and March 15th at Alamo Lamar A at 8 pm.