Review: ‘Free Skate,’ starring Veera W. Vilo, Leena Uotila, Karoliina Blackburn, Jevgeni Haukka, Saara Elina, Miikka J. Anttila and Sirke Lääkkölä

March 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Veera W. Vilo in “Free Skate” (Photo courtesy of Indiecan Entertainment)

“Free Skate”

Directed by Roope Olenius

Finnish, English and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Finland and in Russia, the dramatic film “Free Skate” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A competitive figure skater, who has immigrated from Russia to Finland, has secrets and personal problems that affect all aspects of her life. 

Culture Audience: “Free Skate” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about ice skating, as well as the pressures and exploitation that athletes experience when they are expected to win at all costs.

Karoliina Blackburn and Miikka J. Anttila in “Free Skate” (Photo courtesy of Indiecan Entertainment)

“Free Skate” starts off slowly, but the movie’s story unfolds in layers, so the last half of the movie is better than the first half. It’s a drama about the dark side of competitive figure skating, with notable acting and screenwriting from Veera W. Vilo. The movie is based partially on Vilo’s own experiences as a professional gymnast and the traumas that she’s heard that other female athletes have experienced. “Free Skate” shows the pitfalls and sexism of sports where women and girls are judged as much by how “attractive” their physical appearance is as they are judged for their athletic skills.

Directed by Roope Olenius, “Free Skate” begins with a scene of a skater (played by Vilo) in her 20s who is found unconscious, bloodied and bruised by a truck driver (played by Neea Viitamäki) on the side of a snowy road somewhere in Finland. All of the characters in “Free Skate” do not have names. By keeping these characters nameless, it might be the “Free Skate” filmmakers’ way of saying that these characters in “Free Skate” could represent anyone who is connected directly or indirectly to competitive figure skating.

Authorities find out that the protagonist skater has a maternal grandmother (played by Leena Uotila), who lives not too far away. The protagonist skater is then sent to live with her compassionate and loving grandmother, who has not seen her granddaughter since the granddaughter was a child. The protagonist skater, who is originally from Russia, won’t say why she was assaulted. She is very quiet and introverted. The movie also never shows how she immigrated from Russia to Finland, but it’s eventually revealed how she ended up unconscious at the side of the road.

“Free Skate” alternates between showing the protagonist skater’s current life in Finland and flashbacks to her past life in Russia. Viewers find out that the protagonist skater’s deceased mother (played by Viivi Pumpanen, in flashbacks) was also a competitive figure skater. The movie never mentions how this mother died. One of the flashbacks shows the mother giving a medallion necklace to the protagonist skater, when the skater was about 5 or 6 years old (played by Aada Puuska) and learning to skate. This necklace is the protagonist skater’s most prized possession, and she thinks of it as her good luck charm.

Flashbacks also show why the protagonist skater wanted to leave Russia. Her greedy father (played by Jevgeni Haukka) was one of the people who abused and exploited her. The details of her abuse and exploitation are revealed in several flashbacks, with glimpses shown in the movie trailer for “Free Skate.” In Russia, she also had verbally abusive coaches who would constantly berate her about her weight and her performances.

The protagonist skater’s Russian head coach (played by Sirke Lääkkölä) is a loudmouth bully who calls the protagonist skater a “fat cow,” just because the skater has about an inch of body fat in her abdomen area. The skater’s other Russian coach (played by Regina Launivuo) is not as aggressive as the head coach, but she enables a lot of the abuse. It should come as no surprise that the protagonist skater has bulimia.

The movie’s flashbacks show that in Russia, it’s not unusual for female skaters to be physically assaulted by coaches and people who work for their sponsors while the skaters are practicing. The protagonist skater experiences one such assault when a three men, led by a “fixer” (played by Slava Dugin), show up at the skating rink during one of her practice sessions. She is kicked, attacked, and called a “useless bitch” because they say that she owes money for skating expenses.

In Finland, the protagonist skater is taken to a hospital after being found unconscious on the road. When she is discharged from the hospital, she recovers in her grandmother’s home. She wants to continue to skate, so her grandmother gives her the details to apply to the best skating program in Finland. The protagonist skater has some immigration visa issues that are eventually sorted out when she enters the skating program and gets a Finnish social security number.

The protagonist skater does not have an abusive coaching team in Finland, but she is plagued with self-doubt and other self-esteem issues related to the abuse she suffered in Russia. Her coaching team is disciplined and empathetic to any physical pain that the protagonist skater might have from injuries, but they don’t really want to deal with the emotional pain that she and the other skaters might have. No one suggests psychiatric therapy or other counseling for the protagonist skater.

The people on her Finnish coaching team includes a head coach (played by Karoliina Blackburn), a choreographer (played by Miikka J. Anttila) and a ballet teacher (played by Saara Elina), who is the closest to the age of the protagonist skater. The head coach has a “tough but tender” approach to leading. She doesn’t like to see people to show self-pity. The choreographer is flamboyant, has meditation sessions, and says things such as: “The free skate is not about the theme. [It’s about] the feeling and the expression.”

The ballet teacher is one person on the team who shows an interest in getting to know the protagonist skater outside of practice sessions. One day, after a teaching session, the ballet teacher invites the protagonist skater back to her home. The teacher, who is also a part-time ballet dancer, says that as tough as the figure skating world is on women and girls, the world of ballet is even “crazier.”

The ballet teacher also confides in the skater that she and her husband are trying to have their first child together. The skater mentions that she hasn’t had her menstrual period in a while. For women and girls with eating disorders, a common side effect is interruption of menstrual periods. The ballet teacher senses right away that this is why the skater isn’t menstruating, and she urges the skater to get medical help.

“Free Skate” has a compelling story, but large chunks of the film consists of scenes showing monotonous routines of training and exercises, especially in the first half of the movie. The psychological journey of the protagonist skater is shown in nuanced ways through Vilo’s admirable performance. The protagonist skater arrives at her grandmother’s home shellshocked from the trauma of her attack. She then gains a little bit more confidence during her recovery, and after she finds out that her Finnish coaches are kind, compared to the coaches she had in Russia.

But the protagonist skater is still haunted by her past. A very effective scene in the movie shows the choreographer asking his trainees during a meditation session to think about the feelings that they had during their best competition experience. This request leads the protagonist skater to have a fantasy that exposes her deepest fear of being in a figure skating competition, when a moment of triumph turns into a moment of tremendous humiliation.

Outside of this fantasy, the protagonist skater improves her skills and ends up doing so well in a competition, a TV reporter (played by Beata Harju) wants to interview her. This interview triggers a lot of memories for the protagonist skater. And the interview is an important turning point in her life.

“Free Skate” has some skating scenes that are filmed very well, but don’t expect this movie to have a lot of skating competition scenes. It’s more of a story about the skater protagonist being in a desperate war with herself, when it comes to how she wants to deal with her past. There’s some melodrama crammed in the last 10 minutes of the film, with an ending that looks somewhat rushed. However, “Free Skate” does an overall effective job of giving an up-close and personal look at how the seemingly glamorous world of figure skating can hide a lot of very ugly abuse and damaging exploitation.

Indiecan Entertainment released “Free Skate” in select U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 28, 2023.

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