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Review: Personal Best

There’s no avoiding a certain global sporting competition taking place in our back yards shortly, and anyone hoping to seek refuge in the cinema from the non-stop sporting coverage will be disappointed: there’s a wealth of Olympic tie-ins hitting screens over the next month, with the Noel Clarke’s Bend it Like Beckham clone Fast Girls aiming to become the track-and-feel-good hit of the summer, and even 1981 Oscar-winner Chariots of Fire is getting a wide re-release in anticipation of the Games.

Before they arrive, however, this Friday sees the release of Personal Best; a new documentary about four young British athletes as they train and prepare for what is, without hyperbole, the opportunity of several lifetimes – the chance to represent the UK on home soil in the Olympics.

Personal Best is borne out of the 2007 short documentary entitled Sprinters, made by director and editor Sam Blair as a final project for his MA in Documentary Film-making. Blair’s choice of subjects in Sprinters was either serendipitous or a result of incredible foresight, as three of the four featured athletes in Personal Best were also subjects in Sprinters, and all three have fascinating stories to tell, with enough twists and drama over the in total four year filming period to rival that of any fictional sports movie.

The film is low on cheap sentiment or triumphalism, however, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a propaganda piece for the UK or the Olympics, as perhaps might be expected. Modern London as shot by DOP Jean-Louis Schuller feels grey, dour and dystopic, and the ambient, throbbing soundtrack by electronic artist Lukid is tense and oppressive.

For the majority of the characters – if not all of them – athletics represents an escape route from a life that terrifies them, whether that’s a life of crime on the streets, or simply a standard nine-to-five routine: as one hopeful says, “I want to do something that’s different from everybody else. I don’t want to be normal.” It’s a story of dreams, and the film is realistic about the stratospheric odds against our heroes making it – as the weary mother of one athlete says, in sprinting there can only ever be one winner.

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It’s great to see a sports documentary that take time to actually focus on the physical activity itself – the very first lines in Personal Best are a coach announcing sprinting as the purest version of sport possible, and the following 89 minutes do an excellent job of selling us on exactly that.

First, we see the extreme physical toll that all potentials have to undergo – these are bodies operating at the very peak of human capability, with an unrelenting regime of diet, running, weights, and more running. Even more punishing is the mental strain – it’s a sport where 1/100ths of a second can mean the difference between the highest honour imaginable, and exile from the sport altogether. Losing focus is fatal – this, combined with the couldn’t-be-higher personal stakes for the participants, means at points the tension in Personal Best becomes almost unbearable.

It’s also undeniably compelling, and despite the occasionally somber tone, the film, much like sprinting itself, is a story of humanity operating at its very peak. As such, it is at many points genuinely moving, and the demonstrations of willpower and determination displayed by the protagonists will stay with you for a long time. I generally don’t follow athletics, but after watching Personal Best I’ll definitely be watching the UK trials next month to see if the film’s participants will indeed achieve their Olympic dream, and that’s the highest compliment perhaps that I can pay the film and the film-makers. This is empathetic documentary film-making of a very high caliber, and comes highly recommended to sports-phobes and sports fans alike.

 

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Paul is a writer originally from Bristol, now based in London, where he writes for a number of websites with the word ‘geek’ in the title, for reasons that are clear to everyone but him. You can find him on Twitter where he indulges in equal parts amateur philosophy and equal parts ruthless self-promotion. He lives in Hackney with people and no pets. His interests are broadly the same as yours.

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