For 15-year-old athletic prodigy Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita), the impressionable protagonist of “Slalom,” her training at a youth ski academy is supposed to be the next step in a trajectory toward the Olympic Games, one that began when she first hit the slopes at age 4. It will become a downhill plunge straight into adulthood, each pole a painful lesson about living as, to borrow a phrase from a lesser film, a promising young woman in a predatory world.
Her trainer is Fred (Jérémie Renier), a fortysomething ex-ski champion who motivates his students through fear and humiliation, treating every descent down the mountain with terminal significance. His advice for Lyz, with whom has taken a disproportionate interest: “Take off the breaks, stop thinking and go.”
Fred regularly sees Lyz in nothing but her undergarments, measuring her body fat and tracking her menstrual cycles, ostensibly to tailor her training regimen around her “time of the month.” If it sounds more like an invasion of privacy than a dedicated coach going the extra mile for his pupil, then you’re a step ahead of where this unsettling film is going. The more Lyz excels on her skis, the more Fred’s libido clouds his thinking. When Lyz, the product of two divorced and absent parents, finds herself struggling at school, Fred is the first to offer to take her in, cultivating a relationship with his teenage star that blurs the lines between trainer, guardian and abuser.
“Slalom” is the remarkably assured feature debut of French writer-director Charlène Favier, and it’s cut from a similar docufictive cloth as Celine Sciamma’s coming-of-age narratives (“Water Lilies,” “Tomboy,” “Girlhood”). Favier understands that for too many young women, their “potential” is often wrapped up in their attractiveness and nubility to the patriarchy, and the director is unsparingly raw in presenting the traumas she endures because of it: the blood and the semen and the tears, the pain of keeping a secret and the increasing hollowness of her athletic victories.
Favier shoots her debut with indelible moments of aching poetry amid her observational aesthetic. I won’t soon forget the image of Lyz’s palm splayed against the foggy windowpane of Fred’s van the first time he crosses a line into criminal behavior, or his own lingering look of post-coital shame the next time he does it. Or the time she hitchhikes to the ski academy, a moment captured in a desolate aerial shot that properly places her as someone completely alone in a harsh world.
From writing to performance to direction, there is not a false note anywhere in “Slalom.” And while it is clearly Lyz’s central story of awakening, I couldn’t help but think of what will happen after she leaves the academy, and Fred is still around, advising the next budding pubescent skier to “stop thinking and go.”
Lyz will be OK—we hope. It’s the plight of the Lyzes of the future that lingers, like powder on the slopes.
“Slalom” is playing virtually through FLIFF On Demand, and it opens Friday, April 16 at Living Room Theaters at FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Showtimes are pending.