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TIFF 2023: Backspot, Nyad, Lee

Several films at this year’s festival featured women—real and fictional—who push back against expectations of what women should be while also pushing their minds and bodies to the limit. In D.W. Waterson’s “Backspot” a young woman pushes herself to the extreme after joining an elite cheer squad. Similarly, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “Nyad” tells the story of Diana Nyad, who, in her sixties, aims to become the first person to swim from Cuba to the US without a shark cage. Finally, Ellen Kuras’ “Lee” follows artist Lee Miller during her time as a war correspondent during WWII. 

Backspot” plays a bit like “Bend It Like Beckham”—if that pioneering teenage sports film were allowed to also be the lesbian love story the filmmakers had originally intended it to be—mixed with Lauren Hadaway’s visceral rowing drama “The Novice.”

Directed by D.W. Waterson and written by Joanne Sarazen, the competitive cheerleader drama centers on teenager Riley (a ferocious Devery Jacobs), whose perfectionism leads to anxiety attacks and compulsive behavior. We meet her at a gym filled with glitter-lined signs that read "You Got This" and "Eat Sleep Cheer," where she attends cheer squad practice with her girlfriend Amanda (the irrepressibly charming Kudakwashe Rutendo). When coaches (a steely Evan Rachel Wood and Thomas Antony Olajide) for the more elite Thunderhawks team sit in on a practice to recruit new members and replace girls who have been injured, Riley's ambition goes into overdrive. When Riley, Amanda, and Rachel (Noa DiBerto, channeling the exquisite comic timing of a young Tara Reid) are chosen to join the team, the girls trade in their relaxed, joyful appreciation of the sport for a more decidedly brutal, competitive approach. 

Waterson also edited the picture and presents the training sequences as intense montages filled with broken, bruised, and bloodied bodies. That these girls then perform their extremely athletic routines with bows in their hair and glitter eyeshadow remains an irony curiously left unexplored beyond how this “old school” gendered presentation and the girls’ omnipresent smiles are geared to make “it look easy.” The script also shoehorns one scene that mentions the sport's double beauty and body standards but leaves it at that, jettisoning its one slightly larger cast member. 

Yet while some of its themes never quite gel—I loved seeing Shannyn Sossamon as Riley’s mom, but her fragile perfectionism, which is implied to stem from abuse from her husband, never ties successfully into how the sport abuses Riley’s body—the film's strengths are in how Waterson externalizes Riley's anxieties and joys. When she picks at her eyebrows, Waterson brings the camera into an uncomfortably extreme close-up. When she's enamored with Amanda, the camera swirls and floats around the two lovebirds. When Riley's anxiety rises, the soundtrack somehow becomes simultaneously muffled and a cacophonous rumble, overwhelming the entire frame. When she's performing, the camera is often mounted like a GoPro, flying off the ground with her. Waterson’s visual technique matches Jacobs' fierce performance perfectly, augmenting her choices rather than distracting from them. Jacobs and Waterson are in the same perfect lockstep as the film's cheer squad itself.

The biopic “Nyad” also shows the visceral extremes of what it takes to push your body to its limit to achieve greatness. At 28, marathon swimmer Diana Nyad (Annette Bening, never better) attempted to swim from Cuba to Key West in Florida. It was going to be her last swim. When miscalculations and bad weather ended the dream early, she retired, working as a sportscaster for 30 years. After her best friend and one-time girlfriend, Bonnie (Jodie Foster, terrific), throws her a surprise 60th birthday party, Nyad realizes she's not done yet. Over the four of several years, Diana sets out to finish what she started. 

Directed by documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin ("Free Solo," "The Rescue''), "Nyad" is a portrait of the determination and grit—and self-absorption—possessed by athletes who push themselves to their limits. Along with Bonnie as her trainer, Nyad must work closely with a navigator, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), shark and jellyfish specialists, and more to finally achieve her grueling dream. 

Bening and Foster have the easy chemistry of women who "dated for a second, two hundred years ago." Foster, in particular, brings a wonderful complexity to Bonnie, who loves Nyad dearly but has had to put up with her more difficult personality traits for decades, including her narcissism, aversion to mediocrity, and general lack of chill. But there is such deep love between these women, and it's a real treat to see this kind of profound friendship between two women celebrated so richly.

As Nyad—whose name, she reminds everyone, means "water nymph"—Bening transforms her body into that of a world-class athlete and balances Nyad's abrasiveness and offbeat sense of humor. The film also doesn't shy away from showing this sport's brutality; her face puffs up like a balloon after a jellyfish attack, and her body often looks broken and twisted from the intensity of the waves. Vasarhelyi and Chin film her many swims, sometimes like a battle against the elements, at others like a trippy fantasy, while their underwater footage shows the beauty and elegance of Nyad's technique. 

After making her historic swim at 64 in 2013, Nyad says it looks like a solitary sport, but training for such an ambitious goal requires a team. The same can also be said about life. "Nyad" shows the importance of having the right people around you for both. 

Similarly, in “Lee,” the directorial debut from cinematographer Ellen Kuras, we meet artist Lee Miller (played by a ferocious Kate Winslet) at a transitional time. “I’d been a model. I’d been a muse. I’d been an ingénue. I was done with all that,” Miller states as she recalls her later life as a war photographer and correspondent during WWII.

The project, which has had a long journey to the screen (with many credited screenwriters, including Liz Hannah), is based on a book by Miller’s son Antony Penrose, who grew up unaware of his mother’s life during the war. He only learned of her heroism after finding a box of her work—including harrowing images of the Holocaust—in a box in her attic after she died. The film is structured a bit like Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” with an older Miller in 1977 recounting her life interview style to Antony (Josh O’Connor, whose soulful eyes would have likely inspired Miller herself). 

Miller tells of the dog days before the war when fascism was rising, but her circle thought art would keep them safe. In 1938, she meets Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgård) in coastal France, and their sexual connection is apparent immediately. From there, the story skips to their life in London during the war, Miller’s early days photographing the home war effort for Vogue, and her steadfast mission to deploy to the front. Once there, she partners with David E. Scherman (a deeply affecting Andy Samberg), a photographer with Life magazine. The two capture some of the most haunting images from the Western Front: amputations, burned soldiers, the liberation of Paris, and, eventually, the horrors of the concentration camps.

Throughout the film, Ellen Kuras keeps her camera planted squarely on Winslet’s shoulders. Her Miller is impossibly beautiful, earthy, witty, and hard as nails. Winslet plays Miller as a woman who goes through life always on the defensive, ready to push back against misogyny on every level, and, most importantly, ready to bear witness to everything life has to offer: good, bad, and evil. 

One tender scene sees Miller confronting a young French girl who was seduced by a German soldier and gave up valuable information. “He was different. He loved me,” the girl cries. “They all say that,” Miller replies with nothing but compassion. Later, she would photograph the woman, her eyes filled with shame, as they shaved her head for being a collaborator. Like Miller’s wartime photographs, “Lee” asks you to look at subjects you think you already know from a different angle and witness what should never be forgotten.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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