Tall Poppy (2021)

Image by Dean Tirkot used with permission

So much more than a sport documentary, Justine Moyle has managed to show the exquisite pain and beauty that is the coming of age of Australian park skateboarding star and all-round decent human being, Poppy Starr Olsen.

Moyle obviously saw the promise in Poppy at an early age as the documentary follows her from age 14, where she is a sweet and scrappy prodigy beating skaters much older than her to become the highest ranked female bowl skater in Australia. We see footage of 8-year-old Poppy trying out skating for the first time and feel like we are witnessing the birth of someone exceptional. There is something very Australian about the sun, surf and skating lifestyle she and her siblings live and the low-key creative craziness of her family.

For a while you can see that skating is all passion and fun – Poppy travels to compete in the US making friends with so many other young women just as feisty and driven as she is. She rides high on successive wins, transitions to pro skating and still has time for her other passion; art. We start to get a glimpse that maybe her affable mother, Thomas (A.K.A. Kate), is the one that keeps pushing her to improve, sometimes well beyond her comfort zone, but there is never a sense that this is at odds with what Poppy wants. It all gets serious, though, when skateboarding is added to the Olympics and Poppy – and those around her – set their sights on her representing Australia in Tokyo in 2020.

I’ll admit up front that I have a personal connection to this film. Back a few years ago, I met filmmaker Justine Moyle during an unforgettable week at Dark Mofo and she told me about this film, that had been long in the making. That’s the thing with biographical documentaries like this, you are never sure where they will go as they rely on the trajectory of the individual. That and shortage of time and money meant that the completion of the film – and what the story would ultimately be – was never sure and so it has been a delight to see it come to fruition.

What sets this documentary apart from others of its ilk is the intimacy of the portrayal – we get to watch not just a young person turn sporting prowess into a career but a teenager transform into an adult. The trust built between Moyle and cinematographer Dane Howell and Poppy and her family is obvious, allowing us to see their vulnerabilities as well as strengths. It doesn’t focus on just the successes and, by seeing Poppy cope with failures and set backs, we learn about resilience and the importance of inner strength in navigating the expectations of others.

And Poppy is just a really decent person. From her TEDx talk on art and skateboarding to her promotion of women in sport – she frequently competes in a t-shirt that says “Girl is not a 4 letter word” – we can see that she is motivated by more than personal gain. When we watch love blossom with Canadian skater Una Farrar right before COVID shuts down the world, it is impossible not to be moved by the joy and heartache of it all.

If you watched the Olympics last month, you might have seen how Poppy fared. I won’t give away any spoilers – watch this documentary (available on ABC iView until 30 September 2021 and also from Apple TV and Vimeo On Demand) and then Google the results. It’ll make your heart swell.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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