Sunday, June 26, 2016

Full Out (Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I think Lifetime made a mistake by showing the next film, Full Out (2015, though also billed as a “world premiere” last night), right after Center Stage: On Pointe, because the juxtaposition highlighted the plot similarities between them. I actually found Full Out a stronger movie even though it has many plot points in common: a young woman struggling to get ahead in a fiercely competitive career involving body movement, an imperious older woman who’s convinced she isn’t going to make it, a rivalry between two forms of her art she’s interested in pursuing, and some of the sexual politics as well. The central character here is Ariana Berlin (Ana Golja), daughter of a single mother in San Diego (though the film was mostly shot in Canada there were two establishing shots by a second unit in which the back of the North Park Theatre and the corner of 30th and University, featuring the late and very lamented Off the Record, were clearly recognizable), who’s an aspiring Olympic gymnast. She competes in a local meet against Isla (Sarah Fisher), who’s already been to the Olympics and won a silver medal (it wasn’t gold, we’re told, because she did a great routine on the uneven bars but didn’t land cleanly on her dismount), and beats her 9.95 to 9.85. Then Ariana’s mother Susan (Ramona Milano) is driving them home at night and she’s distracted just at the wrong time: a semi-truck (“not even a full truck!” joked Charles) is coming the other way at them on a narrow mountain road, and while everyone in both vehicles survives Ariana is in a coma for several days. When she comes to her doctors have put a metal rod in her upper left leg that’s going to be there the rest of her life, and they’re basically telling her she’ll be lucky if she’s ever able to walk again, much less do gymnastics.

But Ariana, goaded into it by physical-therapy resident Michelle (Ashanti Bromfield — from that first name you can guess she’s Black, which she is, and in some ways she’s the most authoritative actor of either gender in the film), makes a full recovery (the scene in which Michelle gets Ariana out of her wheelchair by taunting her is especially effective) and is determined to audition at UCLA for the school’s legendarily formidable women’s gymnastics coach, Valorie Kondos Field (played by Jennifer Beals, who became an instant star 33 years ago for acting — but not dancing — the role of the heroine in Flashdance), universally referred to as “Coach Val.” Meanwhile Michelle takes Ariana to a basement rehearsal space where she’s leading a rap dance company consisting of a bunch of young people of different ethnicities and genders with hip-hop names like Twist (Lamar Johnson), Cashmere (Genny Sermonia), and Pierce (Jake Epstein), a muscular young white dancer who’s the sexiest guy in the movie and a far better potential mate for Ariana than her wimpy white gymnast boyfriend Nate (Trevor Tordjman), who dumped her for Isla after Ariana’s accident. Michelle asks Ariana to show her rap dancers some gymnastics moves so they can spice up their routines and have a better chance at being signed by the CI agency, which is holding an open audition at the North Park Theatre and holds open the possibility of getting major jobs working in videos by rap artists. Only Ariana, as she recovers both physically and mentally, also wants to become a gymnast again and be accepted by the UCLA program. She auditions before Coach Val, whose assistant (played by the real Ariana Beals — this movie is based on a true story, though as Charles said about the movie Shine it’s a true story the filmmakers picked because it fits so neatly into movie clichés) dismisses her as unfit for competition. Coach Val agrees but figures that even an injured Ariana can help her other students by teaching them some new moves. (The film’s title comes from a rarely performed gymnastics move that involves performing two flips backwards and doing a full body twist during the second flip.) Ariana does more than that; not only does she boost the confidence level of her fellow students and give them some rap attitude, she also starts practicing herself and soon is once again strong enough to compete, even though that rod in her leg has a tendency to put pressure on her and screw up her dismounts.

Ariana is torn between her friends in the rap dance troupe and her obligations to UCLA, especially when Coach Val chews her out about trying to do both, saying that the double duty is exhausting her and she needs to dump the rap company and stick to gymnastics, where she started out and clearly where she belongs as a perfomer. She quits the rap dance company, leading to a lot of bitterness from them since they think she’s letting them down, but suddenly bolts from UCLA on the day of their big audition when she gets a call from Michelle. Michelle is asthmatic and uses an inhaler, and the day of the audition she has a major attack and can’t perform. So Ariana bolts a gymnastics practice, races down the highway from L.A. to San Diego and makes it to the audition in time to help the troupe perform the big move she taught them and get the agency contract they were auditioning for, following which she returns to gymnastics and successfully helps UCLA win six, count ’em, six national championships. In synopsis it may sound like yet another “inspirational” movie about someone overcoming physical or mental handicaps to achieve their dreams, but in practice it’s quite well done, considerably better than Center Stage: On Pointe, thanks largely to a more incisive script (by Willem Wennekers, with Beth Iley credited as “story editor”), also better direction (by Sean Cisterna), and also a far more multidimensional performance by Ana Golja than Nicole Muñoz gave in the analogous role in Center Stage: On Pointe. From start to finish Golja really convinces us she’s a person torn not only between two worlds (and two sets of friends) but between her own inclination to keep trying and the obvious temptations to make things easier on herself. Golja has the makings of a major star career, and if she gets it it’ll be nice to be able to sit back and say, “I saw her when … .”