Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Olivia Peniston-Bird.
I didn’t know much about the “sport” of calisthenics before entering the cinema to see this documentary. Calisthenics is a discipline unique to Australia, and it combines elements of ballet and gymnastics with colourful costumes and superb choreography. Calisthenics can be performed by individuals or by groups with perfectly choreographed routines. And every year an annual Most Graceful Girl competition is held in regional Ballarat, and this showcase is apparently a very prestigious event and the competition is fierce.
Graceful Girls is an assured feature length debut for documentary filmmaker Olivia Peniston-Bird, who has extensive experience as a second assistant director working on films such as the dark thriller Sexy Beast, etc. Peniston-Bird initially set out to make a short documentary about Regent Calisthenics, a very successful and well known training facility that has dominated the competition. Regent was established over fifty years ago by Enid Synnott. The school found its greatest success under the guidance of her daughter Diane, a legendary coach who is a perfectionist and hard taskmaster but who also has a droll sense of humour and is a wonderful personality. But then the Regent school closed down, until recently it was reopened by her daughter Brooke, who juggles teaching youngsters with her hectic schedule of performing in mainstream theatre shows.
Three generations of the one family involved in the sport of calisthenics was the hook that attracted Peniston-Bird. But while working on that film, she learned of Brianne Lee, a 26-year-old primary school teacher who had been the runner-up in the Most Graceful Girl competition three years in a row. And the one year that she did win the title it was taken away because of a technicality over the way the points were awarded. Lee was about to give up calisthenics altogether but reluctantly decided to try for one last shot at the title. Will it end in triumph or tears? This element brings a touch of suspense to the documentary as we follow Lee’s preparations for the final.
Peniston-Bird juggles the two main strands beautifully. There are some insightful interviews with both Dianne and Brianna that reveal their passion for calisthenics, and we also get to meet an 11-year-old future champion. Peniston-Bird gives us some exciting montage sequences showing rehearsals, training routines, glittering costumes and lots of tears and tantrums.
Graceful Girls is very much an observational, fly on the wall documentary that gives us some insights into this little known world of competitive calisthenics. Drawing upon archival material and photographs, Peniston-Bird gives us a potted history of both calisthenics and the Synnott family. She captures the colour and excitement of some complex routines as well as giving us insights into a couple of the central personalities at the heart of the documentary.
Given that calisthenics is still basically a niche activity, Graceful Girls may not appeal to everyone. However it will certainly be a must-see for that demographic that loved Strictly Ballroom or the superb ballet documentary First Position, which was a big influence on the director.