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Mel Campbell 21/8/2015

“Olivia Peniston-Bird’s assured and affectionate directorial debut immerses the viewer in the arcane glamour of calisthenics. Graceful Girls is beautifully shot, structured and paced. It’s full of lipstick, chi on, diamantes, sweaty rehearsal montages and a tense nal act at the championships. It would be easy to ironise this culture, with its glitzy costumes, big, big smiles and perfectly serious statements like, “Yes, it is make or break at Ballarat”.

At times it almost plays like Strictly Ballroom. For the participants, the psychological stakes are high — yet they’re pouring their time, labour, passion and skill into a niche pursuit whose only validation comes from within. When Diane’s asked at one point why she’s still involved after more than 50 years, she’s actually lost for words.

But what I loved most about Graceful Girls was that it captures what Diane can’t: the warm, almost nostalgic appeal of this female homosocial world tucked away in Australian suburbia. A few young boys compete, but men are sidelined to the occasional bit of set building. Women make calisthenics happen, from coaching and admin to crafting the astoundingly elaborate costumes.

With this, Peniston-Bird has uncovered something pure beneath the kitsch: a sense of joy in the beauty of movement. I wasn’t expecting to be spellbound by a group routine in which the Regent Seniors perform as a herd of startled deer. And Brianna’s final performance is emotionally charged in the way of the best movie musicals. (Special mention must go to Nathan Goble, whose soundtrack deftly complements the onscreen performances.)

Most audience members at my screening were familiar with this world, and laughed throughout in good-natured recognition. But even for outsiders, there’s real grace in the feminine care and camaraderie that goes into these evanescent performances.”


Craig Mathieson 20/9/2015

"Olivia Peniston-Bird’s affirming feature, voted Best Documentary by audiences at last month’s Melbourne International Film Festival, explores the dedicated niche world of calisthenics, a form of exercise that can suggest dance with its demanding mix of flexibility, charisma, grace and choreography. Built around the looming Most Graceful Girl national championships in Ballarat, which will be the last chance to win for Brianna Lee, a primary school teacher whose previous losses border on the tragic, the film combines a canny visual eye and a peculiarly Australian strain of competitiveness (revered coach Diane is a plain spoken suburban taskmaster). At times it verges on straitlaced satire, but beneath the smiling preparation is a milieu that empowers girls and puts women in all the central roles. The historical demand was for “a body that was equally strong and beautiful”, and Peniston-Bird reveals calisthenics as a means of personal expression and a creator of confidence."

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