Around the world, the push for athletic greatness poses a threat to children. Livelihoods can be created or lost on the success a young athlete may find in competitive arenas. The success of these athletes may represent something more significant for a country, but to the families involved, life can be pushed to the brink. Actress and writer Veera W. Vilo understands the difficulty firsthand. She grew up in the world of gymnastics, a sport that was forever transformed by the #metoo movement and abuse. With director Roope Olenius, Vilo delivers Free Skate, a tale of finding one’s way in the world of sports while showcasing the power of finding self-worth.
In Free Skate, we follow a figure skater (Vilo) escaping from Russia. However, her plan does not go as expected after she’s found on the side of the road in Finland. When she’s reunited with her Grandmother (Leena Uotila), she begins to reestablish her routine. Over the next few weeks and months, she rises back to the top of the figure skating world. However, as she approaches the world championships, the presence of her father (Jevgeni Haukka) looms large. When asked why she left Russia, she finally tells her side of the story.
The fact that Vilo grew up an athlete feels evident in every scene. Olenius captures an authenticity that can only stem from personal experience. In fact, he’s actively good at shooting the action and drama of the skating sequences. As the director pushes Vilo, both physically and emotionally, she responds with nuanced reactions that one develops over a lifetime of practice, trial, and error. While Vilo shifted the sport in question, she picks one that requires all the grace and athleticism of a gymnast. It’s not an easier path by any stretch of the imagination.
Vilo and Uotila play off each other with love and compassion. This relationship, both on the page and off it, helps fuel the heart of Free Skate. Karoliina Blackburn and Miikka J. Anttila each provide loving support to Vilo’s skater, something we need to keep us rooting for her path back to the top. After all the pain and suffering we watch Vilo endure, the support she receives makes Free Skate something of a crowdpleaser.
However, it’s impossible to fully categorize it as a “feel-good’ romp. Olenius shoots Free Skate with darkness, especially when behind the scenes of the highest levels of competition. The way athletes are traded to and sold in sexual slavery is upsetting in every sense. Watching Vilo’s skater love her sport, only to have her success translate to increased sexual abuse, will be one of the most heartbreaking sequences captured on film in 2023. There’s a tonal discrepancy that’s hard to overcome, but Olenius does what he can to show the warts of the sports world.
The villains of the film often tiptoe into stereotypes during these scenes as well. Perhaps most glaring is the father figure, and Haukka leans a bit too hard into menace. Due to the level of physical violence depicted early in Free Skate, we know how the formulaic narrative will play out. There are no real surprises in the story, and it loses a bit of its novelty because we have seen this kind of film before. Still, Vilo delivers a powerhouse performance. That alone makes Free Skate an early surprise of 2023.