If the lead character in THE BRONZE were a guy, played by Seth Rogan or Jonah Hill, the raunchiness, bad attitude, and permanent scowl would be considered edgy, honest, and even hip. But Hope Annabelle Greggory isn’t the male of the species, and what is acceptable as fun and iconoclastic for those with two X-chromosomes –think SUPERBAD–is somehow off limits for that part of the population that carries a Y. I’ve thought about this a great deal since seeing THE BRONZE and reading the reaction of other reviewers. I think what I comes down to is whether or not our culture allows a woman as lead character when she swears like a sailor and doesn’t mince words about the hostility that fuels her existence. Or, more to the point, is she allowed to be on screen behaving this way and not smiling all the while in order to put them at ease? We are a culture that demands smiles from our women, and when we don’t get them, it’s as disconcerting as someone getting into an elevator with us and facing the back wall instead of the doors.
Hope (co-writer Melissa Rauch), a world-class gymnast who had her dreams snapped in two when her Achilles tendon did just that, is not the kind of person to try to put the people around her at ease. She’s angry and sees no reason to hide it. Not that she doesn’t make chit-chat with the diner owner who has named a slew of menu items in her honor, nor hand off a bit of ill-gotten gains to a guy in a broken wheelchair so that he can get it repaired, but for those she blames for foiling her comeback, there is no respite. For her father (Gary Cole), a hapless postman who enables his daughter’s hostility, it’s a vibrant and active contempt running the gamut from verbal abuse to larceny and the occasional punch in the mouth that drives the man to self-help books and a melancholy bond with his pet goldfish. For the gymnastics coach who nurtured her through the world championships, but had issues with Hope’s burgeoning bosom, there is silence of a particularly arctic nature. Hope, to sum it up, lives in the past as she angrily marches around her small town of Amherst, Ohio, still wearing the same sort of track suit and scrunchie in which she was clad when she received her eponymous medal.
This is a film that is one scowl away from being a very dark psychodrama rather than a very black comedy. Rauch as Hope does nothing to lessen the abrasive impact that Hope has on everyone around her, particularly towards Maggie, the up-and-coming gymnastics star (Haley Lu Richardson), a giddily upbeat girl with a goofy smile and an inability to process Hope’s distaste for her. Fate contrives to force Hope into coaching the very person who is poised to steal her spotlight, and in doing so, no boundary is safe, including the hazing of the gym’s co-owner (Thomas Middleditch), a gentle soul with a twitch and a crush on Hope.
Does every joke land? No. But when they do, there is a pugnacious glee to them that cuts through the conventions of comedy with a cauterizing swipe. Rauch is using humor to make a statement here – look no further than the sex scene involving everything we’ve ever secretly suspected about gymnasts indulging in coitus – to subvert expectations and then to show them up for the cultural contrivance that they are. She even gives us an unexpectedly subtle and believable shift in Hope’s anger as she first tries to undermine, and then help Maggie, while never losing that bristling fury that’s become a habit. That she also shows us a woman unapologetically enjoying deep-fried mozzarella sticks whenever she wants, and downing a milkshake just because she wants to, is nothing less than a battle cry of liberation from societal expectations. That she tells off the smug former gymnast (Sebastian Stan) who took her virginity under less than promising circumstances, and does so without tears of remorse, but rather with words that have more bite than a piranha is Kali incarnate.
Yeah, I liked it.
THE BRONZE is strong stuff and that’s the intention. It’s also insightful, silly, and weirdly exhilarating as it shows one woman’s reluctant road to semi-redemption.