Slalom is one of the best of many recent strong films — Promising Young Woman, The Assistant, Groomed and Athlete A among them — that fit under the #metoo umbrella as they examine young women and girls exploited and harassed by predatory men. With its assured tone and sharp visual style, Slalom is a realistic coming of age film with a contemporary bite. It is a remarkable debut feature from French director and co-writer Charlene Favier that unwinds like a tightly balled fist.
It’s a wonder, after Groomed about a swimmer; Athlete A about the US women’s gymnastics team; and now this powerful film, that any guardian would entrust a child to an elite athletic program since such arenas are ripe for abuse. Slalom is set in the world of elite skiing where 15 year-old Lyz Lopez (the brilliant Noee Abita) is skilled and hardworking enough to catch the eye of the team’s trainer Fred (Jeremie Renier). The grooming tactics that gradually move from caring coaching to inappropriate attention to sexual manipulation and exploitation are detailed incrementally, excruciatingly, from Lyz’s point of view, and mount in subtle horror like a thriller.
The film is set in the Alps with scenes of desolation, swirling nighttime snow and bold, blazing runs down the challenging course that add to the ambiance of isolation and dread. But more sinister are the moments that land like a gut punch as Fred brazenly preys on Lyz’s pursuit of excellence, manipulating her innocence and trust as he showers her with gifts and praise and promises of Olympic glory.
A narcissist whose own Olympic dreams were cut short, Fred exploits Lyz’s diligence and desire to please for his own ego. Lyz’s single mom, Catherine (Muriel Combeau) who working in Marseille, is loving but unavailable. When Fred suggests that Lyz would benefit, academically and athletically, from living with him, Catherine acquiesces, impressed by Fred’s casual but assured manner and her young daughter’s natural eagerness. The scene is fraught with tension and impending danger; it seems incredulous that a training program and a mother would allow such an arrangement — but with so many real life examples out there, mired in the quest for competitive edge and early success, we know, sadly, that it isn’t far fetched at all which makes it more wrenching. Catherine also seems falsely but understandably lulled by the fact that Fred has a kind female partner/assistant, Lilou. Marie Denarnaud plays Lilou with enough mystery and edge to suggest that she knows more than she wants to admit but even her awareness can’t rescue Lyz from an impossible, infuriating situation.