Was new movie Fast Girls a relay good idea? Athletics Weekly’s editor found out
It has been described as a sexy version of Chariots of Fire. No one predicted any Oscars or box office records, but the word on the track and in the field was that Fast Girls was entertaining, well produced and inspirational. So, as a keen film goer, I headed to the cinema with a moderate amount of excitement and lots of curiosity.
A little miffed at Britain’s only athletics magazine not being invited to the premiere in early June, I queued up for a Saturday afternoon showing at my local cinema. Only problem was, the queue wasn’t very long. Just 15 people watched the film – a paltry figure that included my two daughters and one of their friends.
This wasn’t so much a false start, though. It was more of a minor slip out of the blocks. Fast Girls soon got into its stride and the result was a pacey, sporty drama with solid acting, a feel-good storyline and athletics action that occasionally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
So what’s it about? Without revealing plot spoilers, it follows the progress of Shania – a sassy, street sprinter played by the terrific Lenora Crichlow – as she tries to break away from a background that sees her growing up in a grim city centre council flat and training on a decrepit all-weather track with her Ron Roddan-esque coach.
After showing talent, Shania gatecrashes the British women’s 4x100m squad. She quickly strikes up chemistry with a group that includes coach Tommy – played by one of the few well-known faces in the film, Noel Clarke – plus veteran sprint queen Trix Warren and talented team-mate Belle Newman. But Shania clashes with bitchy blonde sprinter Lisa Temple and the ensuing tension – and occasional punch-up – between the two throw the relay hopes into jeopardy.
It’s rare for a film not to have some kind of love interest and sure enough the team physio catches Shania’s eye. Not surprisingly, Shania’s team-mate (and rival) Lisa also has a thing for the physio and it creates a spicy backdrop as the athletes head toward the peak of the season at the 2011 World Athletics Championships in, er, London.
This is where it gets really interesting for athletics buffs. Keen fans of the sport will recognise the World Championships taking place at Crystal Palace, while other action is at Lee Valley in North London. The filming also happened mainly in the winter of last year, which meant actresses, athletes and extras presumably had to look warm while feeling pretty cold.
Director Regan Hall, together with producer Damian Jones of Iron Lady fame, do a great job of making the most of their material. They did not have a real Olympic Stadium to shoot in, after all. In fact, they had to steer away from any kind of Olympic link whatsoever due to the IOC copyright rules. The actresses also had barely any sporting background, but worked hard behind the scenes to ensure that they did not look daft when they ran or passed the baton.
In this area, the film is a great success. Coached and advised by bona fide British sprinters Shani Anderson and Jeanette Kwakye, the actresses were given 300 sit-ups to do, plus 10x100m hill sprints, on the first day of a seven-week training period designed to whip them into shape. This soon progressed to 800 sit-ups a day, with weight training and track work thrown in.
Such was the training, the lead actress Crichlow suffered stress fractures, but the work paid off as they were transformed from ordinary girls into credible athletes. It’s not as impressive as the work done with the Spartan warrior film 300, but it’s not a bad effort.
The running sections therefore are confidently delivered, especially the beautifully-shot final race of the film. There are also stirring training sequences with Crichlow, filmed during the early morning mist with grey, Rocky Balboa-style clothing.
Best of all, though, is a scene where the girls out-run a group of troublesome men outside a nightclub. Taking their shoes off and with the booming nightclub music still in their ears, they let rip down a dark, graffiti-strewn alleyway as they literally show their pursuers a clean pair of high heels.
This short segment also epitomises the general feel of the film. It is gritty, urban and contemporary. Certainly, athletics anoraks over the age of 40 were probably not the target market when the idea for Fast Girls first began to evolve in the mind of producer Jones almost a decade ago. Instead, the film will surely be enjoyed more by teenagers and 20-somethings who can emerge from the cinema inspired and believing that they can match the role models they’ve just seen.
This brings me on to my only real criticism. The film is a 12A certificate in the UK, which means there is some strong language. Indeed there is – the use of the f-word, for example. Now, I don’t mind a little bad language and with some films (such as most of Eddie Murphy’s, for example) it’s necessary. Yet here the swearing is totally needless and surely the movie-makers have scored an own goal by not making the dialogue a little cleaner. The swear words add nothing to the film, but they take away an audience of under-12s who would otherwise enjoy it.
Certainly none of the bad language comes from the many familiar figures from the athletics world that make cameo appearances. Katharine Merry, Iwan Thomas and Paul Dickenson, for example, are among the commentary and interview people toward the end of the film. Rival relay runners and crowds of spectators also include athletes who are well-known in the pages of Athletics Weekly at least, such as Joey Duck and Lesley Owusu, among many others.
Ultimately, Fast Girls won’t win any Oscars, but it’s still very enjoyable and it does British athletics proud on the eve of the London Olympics. It is obvious it doesn’t have anywhere near the same budget as, say, a film like Prometheus, but it makes up for it with good acting and great athleticism.
For the general public, I would give it three stars out of five. It is good, not great. If you are a keen track and field follower, though, then I think you will enjoy it more and I’d tweak my rating to give it four out of five.
Finally, perhaps the ultimate yardstick of success is how the children that I took with me will remember it in 10 or 15 years’ time. I saw Chariots of Fire in my early teens and it was genuinely unforgettable. But will this be the same for the current generation?
These are early days, but three hours after watching the film my youngest daughter was doing press-ups in the garden – unprompted by me – and surely that speaks volumes.