Review by Sean Boelman
Helen Believe has a higher profile than most independent documentaries thanks to the film receiving support from actor Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) as a producer. Although the film is hardly revolutionary — and it does show its budget more than once — the story of Helen Maroulis is so extraordinary that it’s hard to deny the film’s resonance.
The film tells the story of Olympic champion Helen Maroulis, who made history as the first American woman to win a gold medal in Wrestling at the Olympics, as she sets out on a journey to compete in her second games. Maroulis’s story is a high-profile one that received lots of media attention as it happened, but Helen Believe promises to tell a deeper story beyond that.
For the most part, the film is a very conventional underdog story. The filmmakers follow Maroulis through the ups and downs of her career over a period of several years — through success and failure, injury and recovery, and more. If nothing else, the film succeeds at feeling uplifting and inspiring thanks to Maroulis’s unflinching commitment.
There is a second angle to the film involving Maroulis’s struggles with PTSD after injuring herself during competition. This portion of the story is much more unorthodox than her road to the Olympics, and yet it’s largely left underdeveloped. The result almost causes more harm than good because, by failing to adequately explain her struggle, the film almost comes across as insensitive to people with more severe forms of PTSD.
Nevertheless, Maroulis is such a compelling subject that audiences will have no issues connecting with her story. The film even makes some missteps that threaten to undermine the emotional resonance — including half-baked storylines about her reconnecting with her culture or her religion — but Mulick manages to keep his eye on the prize.
That being said, although the film is undeniably powerful in nature, it suffers from notable pacing issues. These become especially apparent in the final act of the film, when Maroulis is competing at the Tokyo Olympics — a portion which feels extraordinarily rushed. It’s as if they ran out of money or couldn’t afford to license more archive footage.
Other than the disappointingly sparse usage of actual footage from Maroulis’s competitions, the film is quite well-made. The cinematography, particularly during the training sequences, is dynamic and energetic, and the ending is slick and kinetic in a way that will keep audiences invested and entertained in the story.
Helen Believe is about as inspiring and charming as one would expect from a sports documentary, but it never manages to ascend beyond the formula. Still, it’s clear that the primary purpose of the film is to lift up the audience, and there’s no denying its success in that regard.
Helen Believe screened at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival, which runs March 23-26 in Tampa, FL.