Personal Best has a quality rare in movies now: ambition worn lightly. This looks like a small, simple movie, but it’s hardly modest. It invites you to look at a few basic results of the peremptory, almost arrogant leap it took even before the lights went out in the theater. You don’t see the leap itself, but the exhilaration of it lingers on the screen.
It is praise to say that I had no idea four years were passing in Personal Best. Though time-and-place titles take the characters—women amateur track-and-field athletes—from the 1976 Olympic trials to the 1980 ones, the spirit of the movie isn’t the struggle of change but a resolute joy in the potential of what already exists. The women’s excellence, competitiveness, sexuality, and concern for each other aren’t issues, or gifts that the screenwriter lets them earn after a hundred pages; they are given.
From the start, the movie is like a limbered-up athlete, easily stretching and extending itself in funny, spontaneous shifts of tone. At the 1976 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) loses her best event, the hurdles, and tries to account to her father, in a tiny, breaking voice, for what went wrong, while Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly, a dark, lithe, elegant athlete making her debut as an actress) wins the shot-put, walks over to her hardboiled-looking coach (Scott Glenn), and suddenly puts her arms around his thighs and lifts him straight up into the air. That night, in a restaurant, Tory’s elation winds down into what’s-it-all-for-anyway glumness after too many beers, and just as she breaks out of that mood with a laugh at one of her own suggestive wisecracks, young Chris, across the room, collapses in sick exhaustion. Tory offers to drive her home.
In the next scenes—Chris sobbing in the car while the older woman’s controlled face strains toward her with tact and reason and sympathy, and then a cut to a close-up of Chris giggling, her part-Indian cheekbones burnished as much by the gleeful abandon of friendship as by the coppery light in Tory’s apartment—there is a range of relationships that other movies take an hour to lead up to. In Personal Best there is no need to lead up to them—they are already there. The “intriguing problem” that one huffy critic of the movie wanted to watch—“lesbianism in women’s athletics”—is thrown out the window in the instant between Tory’s scared kiss on Chris’s mouth and the two women’s reaction: they both laugh.
Their intimacy is threatened by the coach, who asks Chris to enter the pentathlon, Tory’s event; he doesn’t care in principle if they have an affair—“Young love,” he sneers tolerantly—but thinks it will ruin their “killer” instincts. The two women try to hold on to their trust, but the coach chips away at it, and during a separation Chris falls …