There’s an unspoken contract that every international athlete has to sign. It says that an entire country will rally behind them, cheer for them, send them positive energy and deep wells of support in the quest to achieve greatness on the world stage. In exchange, the masses want the athlete to represent the ideal. They want them to be bright, wholesome, an icon for what our countries represent. Seems like a fair trade…but what happens when both sides have fulfilled their ends of the contract? What happens when the icon is free to be whoever – and whatever – they want to be?
THE BRONZE is the story of Hope Ann Greggory (Melissa Rauch). Twelve years ago, Hope competed as an Olympic gymnast and battled through a badly injured ankle to take home an Olympic bronze medal for America. After that, she returned to her home in small town Ohio, to live in the basement of her childhood home with her father (Gary Cole) still there to wait on her.
She drifts through her day-to-day; stealing money, shopping for crap, dining on nothing but handouts, and generally spinning her wheels. She could be a coach and work with the eastern European mentor who guided her career…yet for some reason, Hope chooses to keep to herself.
Into this rudderless existence comes the death of her mentor, and the arrival of a new pupil. The pupil’s name is Maggie Townshend (Hayley Lu Richardson), and she is one of America’s best contenders in the sport of gymnastics. When her coach passes away, Hope is tasked with taking over. If Hope can guide her all the way to the next Olympic Games, she stands to receive a windfall of half a million dollars.
At first, Hope misunderstands the nature of the reward and seems poised to ruin Maggie’s entire career. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps she’s still at-odds with her old coach, perhaps she’s unhappy that there’s an heir apparent to her athletic crown. This sleepy town might not be big enough for both of them in Hope’s eyes. It’s around then that Lance Tucker – a representative from the national team (Sebastian Stan) – drops by to check on Maggie’s progress. Unimpressed by what he sees, he threatens to take over Maggie’s coaching himself.
It’s then that Hope learns that she gets nothing if Maggie goes with another coach to The Olympics, so she has to dig deeper, undo the damage she’s already done, guide her newfound protege, and finally grow-up.
There’s a challenge laced into THE BRONZE that many of us in the audience will fail, and that’s the challenge to willingly follow a female antihero. There’s an awful lot that Hope says and does that feels brusque, brazen, and belligerent. Is it just that though, or does it feel especially so because it’s coming from the mouth of a five foot tall blonde woman? Audiences will have trouble pulling for Hope or letting her in, however it’s quite possible that those same audiences wouldn’t have such problems if the character was played by Paul Giamatti or Louis C.K.
This is a movie that undeniably comes with a bitter aftertaste…but is that aftertaste a sign of sexism in all of us?
That said, one of the things THE BRONZE does best is question the nature of small town celebrity. Lots of us could possibly be accused of being big fishies in small ponds, but Hope’s reality is something different. Hope did something incredible that few people in the world ever get to do, her fame is nothing to sneeze at…certainly not in the age of reality TV stars and social media celebrities who are notable for far less. This movie isn’t out to take anything away from Hope’s accomplishment. What it is out to question is what it has done to her hometown’s disposition and her own.
What is the point in providing someone famous with free lunches? With their own parking spot? With a booth in the diner reserved just for them? These sorts of things are played for mild absurdity in the movie, but they stem from very real attitudes from real real people in our world. Are these things done because the rest of us believe these people have “earned it”? That seems weak. This is an Olympic athlete we’re talking about here, not a returning soldier. Maybe some sick part of us believes their “specialness” will rub off just by proximity (perhaps that’s why we now clamour to take selfies with them). Therefore, we stoke the treatment, even if it isn’t earned.
But what about the recipient of said “free lunch”? What good does it do someone like Hope Ann Gregory to let them go day after day living in the past. They say that some people are continually haunted by one moment in their lives, well here’s Hope…feeding off one moment. She could have taken that boosted legacy and did anything with it; inside of the sport or out. Yet here she is, years later, still wearing her track suit, milking her accomplishment for all it’s worth, and literally getting off to fame.
Hope needs someone to guide her back down to earth, and yet no one will. The toughest part is that people like her exist in this world. Hope – and people like her – spent so much energy preparing for one particular test, that they don’t know what to do after they hand in their test paper. Perhaps that’s where the real coaching could begin.