I had expected this sports documentary about the backstage world of Russian rhythmic gymnastics to be a hard watch, and sure enough it was.
Sydney 2000 Olympics had given the world many unforgettable memories, but one of my personal unforgettable moments was an old red-faced Russian coach screaming his head off at the female volleyball team during the game break. He was so awful I told my Mum to turn on the TV, and five seconds later she got back to me with oh my god, I want to kill him. Over the Limit has much in common with fictional stories like Whiplash, where a young protagonist is similarly put under an immense emotional and physical pressure in the name of perfection, but my thoughts mostly went back to the memory of that real-life Russian coach-from-hell.
The film follows Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun and her excruciating journey towards the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she won a gold medal. Though we see little snippets of her personal life and lighter moments when she’s free to be a normal 20-year-old girl, the bulk of the film is devoted to the gruelling training sessions and the intense pressure from Mamun’s two female coaches that frankly feels like emotional abuse more than anything else. Mamun’s personal coach comes off as the relative good cop only in comparison to the cold-eyed head coach of Russia’s national gymnastics team, a glamorous figure who looks like a grand dame and swears like a trooper. “You’re not a human being, you’re an athlete,” says the former, as a way of tough-love encouragement. “We need to treat her like a dog! She has to work and work and work!” barks the latter.
It’s hard for a non-Russian speaker to get the true sense of sheer obscenities heaped upon Mamun, when even something as taboo as the c-word gets an airing in English-speaking TV and movies. Hardcore Russian swearing is like a whole different category of profane words that are used casually in everyday life but almost always censored in mass media. I’ve always loathed it and listening to the never-ending stream of expletives made the training scenes even more unbearable.
Throughout it all, Mamun remains a largely inscrutable figure, accepting the abuse with a bowed head even as her face betrays the emotional exhaustion, and only showing very muted signs of rebellion. But this distanced, matter-of-fact approach to its subject works, and in fact makes the film feel more hard-hitting. Mamun’s story gets even more tragic as we gradually learn that her father is dying of cancer, but even this personal grief is nothing sacred for the coaches, who encourage her to mine it in order to make her performances feel more emotionally charged.
Over the Limit can’t help but linger on the exquisite beauty and grace of rhythmic gymnastics, even as it underlines the psychological torment behind Russia’s excellence in the sport. Perhaps pointedly, it relegates Mamun’s triumph at the Olympics to an epilogue, to avoid the “it was all worth it in the end” interpretation. Like a cracking rhythmic gymnastics routine, the movie is precise and taut, and gripping to watch despite its harrowing nature.