“I have a secret for you: this isn’t about gymnastics; it’s about life.” Wise words offered up by “Miss Val,” the celebrated UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, played by Jennifer Beals, in the made-for-TV movie “Full Out.” And no truer words could apply to the message of this inspiring film, directed by Torontonian Sean Cisterna.
“I have a secret for you: this isn’t about gymnastics; it’s about life.”
– Coach Val
Based on the life of Ariana Berlin, a talented California gymnast who suffered devastating injuries in a debilitating car accident, the film invites viewers to reflect on the true meaning of following one’s dreams in the face of adversity. Confronted with the possibility that she might never do gymnastics again, Berlin inadvertently found herself in the world of hip-hop where she discovered the strength to persevere in both body and spirit.
Cisterna has great admiration for Berlin and took seriously the job of portraying her trials and triumphs. To meet the challenges of making the film, he looked to her story for inspiration.
“We were honestly just taking our cues from this remarkable young girl’s life,” he said.
For Cisterna, the greatest challenge wasn’t shooting the dance or gymnastics scenes; the real question was how to strike a balance between family appeal and the intensity of Berlin’s story. Part of his approach in finding this equilibrium was creating a window into Ariana’s mind, giving the audience greater access to her emotional journey. It also allowed him to enter into some grittier territory, while still maintaining the lighter charm appropriate for younger viewers.
The director said that finding the perfect Ariana was a difficult task, “This was the hardest part we’ve ever had to cast because, not only did they have to be engaging and a talented actor, but they also needed strong dance ability, as well as gymnastics and athletic ability.”
Ana Golja (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”) wound up being the ideal fit – a young actor who not only possessed the dramatic range for the role, but also the physical skills and stamina for what was involved. In preparation for the part, she had to undergo eight weeks of gymnastics training. The real Ariana Berlin was also a key part of the project and performed the complicated gymnastics routines in the movie.
The film does a fine job of alternating between the loose and fun world of hip-hop and the more structured and rigid life of a professional gymnast. It is at times playful and light-hearted but does not shy away from encouraging the audience to ask themselves some hard questions.
“Full Out” will entertain viewers of all ages and, in a world where so many young (and not-so-young) people too easily embrace the words “I can’t,” the film and Berlin’s story move us to think and talk about who and what truly holds us back in life and how we might overcome. It seems Miss Val was right; it’s not really about gymnastics.
“Full Out” premieres Friday, September 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT on the Family Channel. For additional airing dates, go to the film’s website.