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White Palms

The white palms of White Palms are the chalky hands of the real-life gymnasts who back-flip before the camera in this largely autobiographical, melodramatic saga—no, not a sports doc—spanning two decades and continents. Hungarian writer-director Szabolcs Hajdu's third feature stars his brother, Zoltán Miklós Hajdu, as a grown-up mat prodigy who arrives in Calgary circa 2001 to coach a junior team. Literally beaten down during his Communist-era childhood by the most abusive training mentor since Full Metal Jacket's R. Lee Ermey, Miklós repeats history by smacking one of his kids. With his coaching duties stripped, Miklós is demoted to babysitting a rebellious teen talent (Olympic medalist Kyle Shewfelt, his real-life protégé). Their lightweight clash seems instantly reparable the moment they learn to communicate through their athletic feats, though helmer Hajdu understands these dramatic limitations—and, more importantly, the danger of using Olympians as thespians beyond the occasional poetry-in-motion tableau, framed from afar. The bulk of White Palms—and the more riveting, grim storyline—is seen in flashback to the early 1980s, as tween Miklós lives like his parents' show pony in an anxiety nightmare of nonstop humiliation, heightened here through haunting soundscapes. When the third act catches up to modern day with the inevitable arena competition, the teacher now faces both his student and his younger self, with the film cross-cutting between two white-knuckle climaxes, dismounting with an out-of-left-field Cirque du Soleil performance.

 
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