The Melbourne International Film Festival, Reviewed

The best, the worst, and the weirdest of what's coming to Australian movie screens in coming months.

The Film That Will Make You Wish You Could Do The Splits:

Graceful Girls, dir. Olivia Peniston-Bird

Reviewed by: Mel Campbell

Olivia Peniston-Bird’s assured and affectionate directorial debut immerses the viewer in the arcane glamour of calisthenics. Derived from the 19th-century boom in ‘physical culture’, this quintessentially Australian performative sport combines elements of dance, rhythmic gymnastics and musical theatre, and can be performed in groups or individually. (A similar but separate variety of this, known as ‘physie’, was popularised in Australia by Danish-born PE teacher Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen, uncle of future Queensland premier Johannes.)

Peniston-Bird’s protagonist is Brianna Lee, a 26-year-old primary school teacher whose lifelong involvement in calisthenics is culminating in her final bid to win its top individual honour, “Most Graceful Girl”. Brianna competed many times, and placed second three years in a row. After her most recent, heartbreaking defeat, she almost gave up calisthenics altogether.

In this, her final attempt, her coach is legendary veteran Diane Synnott, scion of a Melbourne calisthenics dynasty that continues with daughter Brooke, who juggles professional musical theatre gigs with competing and teaching at her family’s club, Regent Calisthenics. Alongside Brianna’s preparation, we go behind the scenes with Regent’s junior and senior teams, who compete across eight categories of styles and apparatus.

Graceful Girls is beautifully shot, structured and paced. It’s full of lipstick, chiffon, diamantes, sweaty rehearsal montages and a tense final act at the championships. Will Brianna win Most Graceful Girl? Can Brooke help the Seniors to victory and keep her job in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? Will crabby Diane pull the slipshod Juniors from competition because they’re just not up to scratch?

It would be easy to ironise this culture, with its glitzy costumes, big, big smiles and perfectly serious statements like, “Yes, it is make or break at Ballarat”. At times it almost plays like Strictly Ballroom. For the participants, the psychological stakes are high — yet they’re pouring their time, labour, passion and skill into a niche pursuit whose only validation comes from within. When Diane’s asked at one point why she’s still involved after more than 50 years, she’s actually lost for words.

But what I loved most about Graceful Girls was that it captures what Diane can’t: the warm, almost nostalgic appeal of this female homosocial world tucked away in Australian suburbia. A few young boys compete, but men are sidelined to the occasional bit of set building. Women make calisthenics happen, from coaching and admin to crafting the astoundingly elaborate costumes.

Calisthenics is also a powerful agent of mother-daughter bonding, as we see in interviews with Brianna’s mum, and other women whose involvement in the sport has become multi-generational. They’re all aware of criticisms that it’s more akin to beauty pageants than to a sport or art form.

With this, Peniston-Bird has uncovered something pure beneath the kitsch: a sense of joy in the beauty of movement. I wasn’t expecting to be spellbound by a group routine in which the Regent Seniors perform as a herd of startled deer. And Brianna’s final performance is emotionally charged in the way of the best movie musicals. (Special mention must go to Nathan Goble, whose soundtrack deftly complements the onscreen performances.)

Most audience members at my screening were familiar with this world, and laughed throughout in good-natured recognition. But even for outsiders, there’s real grace in the feminine care and camaraderie that goes into these evanescent performances.

For fans of: dance movies, musicals, camp Australiana

Opening in Australia: In cinemas now

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