“Find your inner harmony. Touch up your eyebrows.” Like many elements in Marta Prus’s documentary Over the Limit, this line seems like something out of a fictional film. A screenwriter couldn’t have come up with a better verbal encapsulation of the strange, highly gendered world of Olympic rhythmic gymnastics, where success is determined as much by the athlete’s agility and concentration as it is by her beauty and grace.
This line, though, is extemporaneous, spoken by the villain in this unlikely real-life drama: Irina Viner-Usmanova, head of Russia’s rhythmic gymnastics program. Viner-Usmanova is advising the film’s central subject, Margarita “Rita” Mamun, as she practices for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Despite high expectations for what will likely be her final Olympics, Mamun appears to be faltering, performing unevenly and clearly feeling miserable. Mostly using footage captured at practices, Over the Limit crafts a story that’s in many respects conventional but is nevertheless thoroughly engaging, an intense and emotional look at one athlete’s relationship to her sport.
What’s most striking about the film is how seamlessly it’s fitted Mamun’s 2016 gymnastics season into the structure and style we associate with a fictional narrative. The coaches and players never give interviews or even acknowledge the presence of the cameras; no on-screen text or voiceover narration is needed to fill the viewer in on the stakes of each competition or practice; and Mamun’s struggle with her insecurities, her competitors, and Viner-Usmanova unfolds in a fashion reminiscent of a sports melodrama. Viner-Usmanova in particular seems like a character out of a Disney cartoon, so villainous in bearing and even in dress—like Cruella Deville, she prefers garish, flashy clothing topped off with sinister-looking brimmed hats—that it’s hard to believe she’s an actual person in charge of coaching young women.
If Viner-Usmanova is the film’s overblown villain, Mamun is the archetypical suffering heroine, an island of unfairly oppressed virtue in a cruel world. Constantly derided in the crudest possible terms by Viner-Usmanova, locked in a seething, unspoken rivalry with new upstart Yana Kudryavtseva, and all the while coping with her father’s cancer diagnosis, Mamun appears besieged on all sides. Except on the few occasions when Mamun is able to speak with her boyfriend, her face appears to be locked in an expression of anguish and frustration, her gestures outside of the tumbling mat nervous and uncertain. Perhaps, we gather from her forlorn gaze during breaks in practice, this top-tier athlete would rather be somewhere else, doing something else.
Over the Limit is composed of minutely observed moments that Prus has assembled into an affecting narrative; we’re not sure why Mamun continues despite her evident pain, but we can’t help but root for her. As much as any polished Hollywood drama, the film is a tearjerker, but it distinguishes itself from other sports dramas and documentaries in that it’s ultimately not a celebration of the glory of personal and physical sacrifice.
One might expect the film to reach a triumphant catharsis, revealing in Mamun’s physical performance the hidden virtue of the oppressed. To a surprising degree, history saw fit to provide Prus with an ideal ending—you may Google the results of the rhythmic gymnastics events at the 2016 Olympics if you wish—but Over the Limit restrains itself from presenting a final gymnastics performance that sweeps Mamun’s demons away with it. It thereby leaves open the question of whether all that pain was worth it or whether, indeed, this gymnast has been pushed over the limit.