The Racer, 2019.
Directed by Kenneth Mercken.
Starring Fortunato Cerlino, Niels Willaerts, and Koen De Graeve.
The Racer follows the struggles, glory and dreams of a young cyclist who will do whatever it takes to succeed, no matter the consequences for himself and those around him.
Sports movies are a genre of their own. When done right they can be incredibly engaging stories whose stakes feel really high. When they’re underserved they can easily slide into cheesy films packed with oversentimentality.
The Racer – or Coureur to give it its native title – is surprisingly something very different altogether. A debut feature film by Belgian director Kenneth Mercken, it tells the story of Felix Vereecke, a young cyclist on the road to his first position as part of a professional team.
In a style that almost feels documentarian, the audience goes on the journey with Felix as he chooses to join a racing team in Italy, leaving behind his native Belgium and his unaffectionate father who’s trained him. This choice of style feels like a reflection on the film’s director, whose experience as a budding cyclist was the inspiration for the story.
The relationship between father and son at times feels like it should be the central part of the story. His father seems to swing between living vicariously through his son’s successful career and being all encompassed by jealousy because he never quite got to the top of his own game.
But this is met by another storyline that centres around the pressures of being a professional cyclist and the issues of the sport’s historic drug culture. Documentaries, films and books about this issue in professional cycling are plenty and each seems to tell its own ridiculous tales of the lengths cyclists would go to to cheat the system.
But the way The Racer presents this side of the sport is done in a really personal, humanistic way. It’s not sensationalised storytelling about the highs of getting away with doping. Instead it focuses on the expectations of riders inside a professional team and the lengths they feel they have to go to in order just to keep up with other rides, let alone be the best.
It also deals quite openly with the effects doping can have on a person; and not just in their performance but their mental disposition. There’s one particular scene where Felix must go to extreme lengths to cover up his doping that’s actually pretty uncomfortable to watch.
This element is incredibly poignant in The Racer but it doesn’t feel as though the filmmakers have decided if its a story about that drug use or about expectations and family issues. It can of course do both, but not at a 90 minute running time when it’s as purposefully slow paced as this.
It’s because of this pacing that The Racer doesn’t really feel as though it comes to a big dramatic crossroads like many sports movies do. Instead you just live in the moment with the character, watching as he makes choices about how his career is going to unfold.
What could be vastly improved in the movie is the lead character who lacks anything that makes him likeable or sympathetic. This makes it hard to root for Vereecke as he journeys into his career as a cyclist, something that’s really key to any sports film.
That being said, the overall composition of the film itself is beautiful; it has a simple but impactful style to it through its use of camera, the choices of colour and the way music is used sparingly but effectively. The nature of a movie about road cycling means it’s well-suited to a lot of long, gliding camera shots and this is used to the film’s advantage to create a calm and considered telling of Felix’s story.
Once you settle into the rhythm and pace of this film, The Racer is a really accomplished, and beautifully-made movie. While it lacks a bit of heart, it does have a lot going for it and takes audiences on something of a journey.
A great sports movie needs to engage an audience bigger than fans of the competition at the heart of it. The Racer, however is probably more for anyone that’s into cycling than the general population. But that’s not to say its audience is limited; cycling is after all one of Europe’s most popular sports.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★/ Movie ★ ★ ★