Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar (Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Lifetime ran a “premiere” movie called The Simone Biles Story, a purportedly true account of the Olympic gymnast who won the heart of most of America during the 2016 Summer Games and won five medals — four gold and one bronze. Her story is quite compelling, but it’s also the sort of tale that — as Charles commented about the movie Shine — that gets told because it’s true story that also neatly fits into the Hollywood clichés. As written by Kelly Fullerton and directed by Vanessa Parise (whom I’ve quite liked for her previous Lifetime thrillers but seemed to have less to work with here), Simone Biles’ story (as told by her and Michelle Burford in an autobiography called Courage to Soar, which was also used as a subtitle for the film) comes off as a modern-day version of The Red Shoes: young girl who can do incredible things with her body learns that the only way she can perform at the top of her potential talents is to give up everything else, including school, a normal social life and actual or possible boyfriends. Simone (Jeanté Godlock, I suspect with a major amount of “doubling” via stock footage of the real Simone Biles) was born in Ohio to a woman who was a crack addict, and she was taken away from her mom and put in foster homes until someone in the child protective services department had a rare attack of good sense and realized that the best place for her to grow up would be with her mom’s parents, Ron (Julius Tennon) and Nellie (Tisha Campbell-Martin), even though they lived 1,300 miles away in Texas and placing Simone there would mean uprooting a six-year-old girl from the only neighborhood and friends she’d ever known. 

Nonetheless, the elder Bileses take Simone and her sister in, adding to an oddly blended family that includes her half-brother Adam Biles — who in the movie is a hunky young Black twink but in real life, as shown in a hour-long “Biography” episode on Biles Lifetime showed after the movie, he looks like an African-American version of John Waters. Indeed, they formally adopt Simone and she learns to call them “Mom” and “Dad.” She stumbles into gymnastics when she takes a quick visit to a gym and shows some spectacular moves she knew how to do by instinct, and she attracts the attention of coach Aimee Boorman (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who starts her on formal gymnastics training at age six — actually an advanced age to start since most aspiring women gymnasts begin at three or four. Rather than go to public middle school with her friends, Simone allows her parents to enroll her in a private school — they own a chain of nursing homes and therefore can afford this sort of thing — simply because it’s closer to her gym. The theme of Simone’s attempts at a normal education being frustrated by her athletic ambitions runs throughout the film: when she’s about to go to high school she’s steered into home-schooling instead because a regular school schedule would interfere with her ability to practice, and later when she’s about to go to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro she applies for, and is accepted to, UCLA — only she learns that if she goes to college she can’t compete in school athletics if she accepts sponsorships and therefore she’ll be a “professional” under the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) insane rules that try to pretend college sports are “amateur.” She decides she’d rather be on Special K boxes than go to college — no doubt the ability of professional sponsors to help defray her expenses going to Rio is a factor in that decision — and the rest of the story is the part the world knows. 

After having won three world gymnastics championships in a row, thanks largely to the intensive coaching regimen of Martha Karolyi (Marilyn Norry, playing the hoary old stereotype of Slavic taskmaster that may have existed even earlier than Maria Ouspenskaya in Dance, Girl, Dance but that’s the earliest movie I can remember in which I’ve seen it), she goes to Rio, triumphs both in individual and group competition — she and her teammates call their team the “Final Five” because they’re the last U.S. women’s gymnastics team to compete in the Olympics before Martha’s planned retirement — and it’s only in a closing credit that the film mentions the most sordid part of Simone Biles’ career: her recent acknowledgement that she was one of the 137 (that we know about so far) victims of sexually predatory Dr. Lawrence Nassar, who for some reason was the medical professional attached to the USA Gymnastics organization and so got access to all those hot little girls so he could essentially fist them. The documentary mentions the sequel to Biles’ Olympic career, including competing on the “reality” TV contest Dancing with the Stars and most recently undergoing the rigors of training for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo even though by then she’ll be 23, antediluvian for a female gymnast. The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar is well done enough (though during the post-film documentary I marveled at the number of cast members who didn’t look that much like their real-life equivalents: the real Ron Biles hardly looks anything at all like Julius Tennon and, though Tisha Campbell-Martin looks considerably closer to the real Nellie, she doesn’t have the real Nellie’s slight but noticeable West Indian accent) and I hope it helps Vanessa Parise get the theatrical feature-film jobs she deserves (one of the things I like about Lifetime is that they frequently give opportunities to women directors), but we really do have the sense that we’ve seen it all before …