Beneath the interminable onslaught of raunch in the indie gymnastics comedy The Bronze, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee, lurks something incredibly sweet and resonant and true. The problem is that the ensemble of implausible characters, compared ad nauseam to the quirky misfits of Napoleon Dynamite, will likely distance and frustrate audiences before they get the opportunity to win them over.
For the record, though, I was.
Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory) is Hope Ann Gregory, the foul-mouthed pride of Amherst, Ohio. Her Midwestern vowels are so flat they're practically Australian. Hope won the bronze medal in gymnastics in '04 after suffering an ankle injury on the beam but heroically returning on the uneven bars (basically Keri Strug). Years later, she still clings to the past, nursing the psychic wounds of a career cut short by injury and refusing to do anything remotely like growing up. She lives in her dad's (Gary Cole, of HBO's Veep) basement and glories in her small-town celebrity: Olympic sweatsuit 24/7, free Sbarro pizza, sex with anyone who agrees to it. She's a sort of outlandish hyperbole, and because her introduction is so tonally off-the-mark (she masturbates to a video of herself in the '04 games —- what?), both the unsavory protagonist and The Bronze itself have a long uphill battle.
In an early precipitous twist, Hope's old coach commits suicide. Hope is told that she will inherit an enormous sum of money if she trains the young Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), the next big gymnast from Amherst — a hotbed, evidently, despite the fact that the town's lone gym resembles a condemned ski lodge. Maggie's a smiling, teenage, trailer-park goody two-shoes who represents a threat to Hope's stature in the community.
Training commences, and despite early objections and blatant attempts at sabotage, Hope settles into her coaching gig. She actually grows fond of Maggie, who's supposed to be rural blue-collar but reeks of gated suburbs.
A romance blossoms to boot, between Hope and the twitchy Ben (Thomas Middleditch, of Silicon Valley), the Boy Scout-y heir to the Amherst gym. Meanwhile, gymnast-bro parody Lance Tucker (Captain America: Winter Soldier's Sebastian Stan) hovers in the periphery as an emissary for the U.S. national team. He's an old flame of Hope's who wants to take Maggie under his wing.
(Gear up, among other things, for the most acrobatic sex scene in cinema history. A hotel-room tryst between two former gymnastics medalists is like Cirque du Soleil choreographed an Austin Powers' skit.)
The movie is most on target when its small town charm isn't exaggerated beyond recognition. In one touching scene, Ben takes Hope on a date. He's had a crush on her for years — a dynamic that never gets old! — and sets up a picnic at the local mall. They play Truth or Dare in the darkened food court. It's a wonderful scene. Ben's twitching is more subdued, Hope's vulgarities are briefly on hold, and the priorities and limitations of their lives come into focus in the most perfect possible setting. (Olympic judge holds scorecard reading 9.6!)
Directed by Bryan Buckley, who's most famous for his 50-plus Super Bowl commercials, the gymnastic content in The Bronze is solid as well. During Maggie's climactic floor routine at the Olympic Games, the camera zooms in slow-mo on Hope, watching in the corner. It's a marvelous choice, and if I may say so, the effect is fairly stirring.
The script's resolution is predictable but sweet — rom-com-esque, you might say. You realize with a start that the obnoxious character you couldn't stand an hour ago has suddenly taken your heart by storm.