By Paris Zarcilla | Drama
2 young brothers compete in gymnastics. Then they become rivals.

Two young brothers compete against one another in the cut-throat, perfectionistic world of competitive gymnastics. Both train at a local gym, vying for the approval of their coach, who pushes them to both their mental and physical edge.

They also have to contend with their aggressive, angry father, who drives them to be the best — and punishes them severely when they don’t meet his expectations.

The older brother, Isaac, is talented and driven, but takes the brunt of the abuse. He resents his younger brother’s seemingly easier path, though the younger sibling would love nothing more than his brother’s affection. But when his younger brother’s talent seems on the rise, it changes the dynamic between them, ratcheting up both the intensity and the danger.

Writer-director Paris Zarcilla’s short drama combines the dynamism and impressive spectacle of a sports story with the emotional acuity of a raw yet empathetic family narrative, with both strands intertwining together to compelling effect. Told with a muted, almost gritty naturalistic visual approach that emphasizes the emotional barrenness of the boys’ constrained world, the film is remarkably subtle and quiet, much like the brothers themselves. But intense undercurrents of emotion pull the storytelling along until it ruptures with an intense amount of conflict.

The world of competitive gymnastics is inherently impressive to many for the physical feats its often young athletes can accomplish, and the visuals and editing beautifully portray the art of gymnastics, with an eye for fluidity and composition.

The excellent writing uses this arena to illustrate and express the familial dynamics between two brothers in a dysfunctional family. The brothers sublimate their feelings — their desire to please, their anger and resentment and their unhappiness — almost entirely in the gym, where they push themselves to their limits.

Much of the film’s success rests on the casting and performances of the young characters, and the brothers are played with unaffected ease and subtlety — as well as fantastic athletic skill — by young performers Michael and William Tang, who are unrelated despite sharing the same last name (and also trained gymnasts.)

They are able to grapple with the complex emotional dilemmas that the film portrays with specificity and understatement while also retaining a certain touching innocence and directness inherent to children.

It is this tension between the rigor, drive and discipline that gymnastics demands versus the childlike desire for familial approval and love that is explored to powerful effect in the film, and what makes it particularly heartbreaking. When Isaac makes a pointed decision to gain the upper hand at the gym, it pushes the limits of love and loyalty, in an ending that will make both his and viewers’ hearts break.

“Pommel” is an uncomfortably intimate, brutal yet poetic study in sibling rivalry, emotional abuse and familial loyalty. Many of us may not compete in the world of gymnastics, but many can relate to what it means to try to thrive and flourish in a loveless, emotionally starved environment. And almost all of us can relate to their desire to be seen, heard and loved, almost at any cost.

The most compassionate aspect of “Pommel” connects to this deep, driving need in both brothers, though it is expressed in both through different routes. Coming together in this mutual need forms the core of the main arc, and uncovers in both the deep love they long for and can offer one another — one that proves to be the saving grace through a difficult environment.

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