‘At the Heart of Gold’ exposes abuse of young gymnasts

*This review has mentions of sexual abuse

At the Heart of Gold, directed by Erin Lee Carr, is a documentary detailing the decades-long sexual abuse conducted by Larry Nassar, former USA Olympian gymnastics coach, on hundreds of young girls — and exactly how he got away with it for so long. (BV 4.5/5.0)

Review by Intern Beatrice Viri

To first understand why sexual predator Larry Nassar got away with his heinous acts, At the Heart of Gold establishes the groundwork on how he became close with his victims, and why he was able to do so. Gymnastics is a rigorous, intensive sport that starts from a vulnerable age. Bela and Marta Karolyi, two of the most famous gymnast training coaches, established this culture with their monthly training camps, recruiting girls as young as toddlers to endure spartan training. Given the competitive nature of the sport, those who “couldn’t handle” the physical and mental stress of the program would be weeded out— thus having little girls “toughen” it out, dealing with excruciating pain or have their biggest dreams crushed. The Twistars, the acclaimed USA national gymnastics club, owner John Geddert was no better in attitude. Believing in a “tough love” regimen, he’d throw insults at the girls and break them down to achieve results.

Needing a smiling face in such a cruel environment, it’s unsurprising that so many turned to Larry Nassar. In the sports world where injury renders your future futile, especially in gymnastics where pain is extremely common, a doctor is integral to success. Nassar was kind amongst the harsh, near-constant berating of the instructors, offering not only relief for pain but friendship. He would offer tender concern after a grueling day, help the girls with their aches, and was close enough to them to the point where he’d be a regular commenter in social media. Most of the girls regarded him as a friend, and he easily gained their — and their parents’ — trust.

Being so involved in his county’s school district, a prominent physician at Michigan State University and friends with many high-stake individuals, no one would question his ways. Thus, he would often carry out his sexual abuse in the room, while patients’ parents were even watching. He would penetrate private parts under guise of a “special treatment” in pain relief, even providing explanations for what he’d done. Many came back despite the discomfort because many girls were too young to understand, and he’d also provide legitimate treatments. However, the girls who were old enough to understand were gaslit into not believing their experiences, such as one victim who spoke out but was silenced by administration, or the dismissal of Amanda Thomashow’s reports of harassment early on. It wasn’t until Rachael Denhollander’s filing that the case started gaining traction— as hundreds of girls started to realize their horrifying trauma and spoke out themselves.

At the Heart of Gold compiles myriad first-person interviews, archival footage, psychologic experts and the trial of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse case into an evocative and thoughtful film. Review-wise, there’s not much to say— the first-hand commentary and heart-wrenching victim statements speak for themselves.  The resilience of these young women is profound, but it’s heartbreaking to know of their suffering and the deep scars that plague the rest of their lives — and disgusting to see the corrupt system that repeatedly covered up and undermined their abuse. One of the experts, a child psychologist, said something that deeply impacted me. Paraphrased, it was something like “we [adults] will say that we listen to children, but we don’t; adults will protect what they are used to”. Nassar was a renowned physician and friend; there’s no way that people didn’t know about his crimes, but his conviction would disrupt status quo.

Director Carr’s film is raw and powerful, very well-put together in its storytelling by providing buildup to its impactful conclusion. By establishing Nassar’s character, the culture of gymnastics, and the expectations drilled into such young girls, the audience is able to see how socially, he got away with his crimes for so long. Even so, the girls he violated viewed him as a friend. Despite the trauma, they still try and convey his humanity — only for him to bow in pity and attempt to guilt them for his sentence. Nassar is a sexual predator, and his lack of remorse for his actions is deplorable.

At the Heart of Gold is incredibly hard to watch. Anyone with even a small sympathetic bone will tear up at these brave young women telling their stories, and the obvious pain in their words and their faces. But it’s an example of what documentary films should be— a platform for social justice, to educate and advocate for change. At the Heart of Gold is an incredibly important watch.

© Beatrice Viri FF2 Media 05/19/2019

Photo: Isabell Hutchins, Melody Posthuma and Amanda Thomashow, some of Larry Nassar’s victims; A banner of “At the Heart of Gold’s” promotional photo

Photo Credits: Camera operators Benjamin Boult, Megan Mitchell and Rachel Sykes

Does At the Heart of Gold pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?


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Beatrice Viri pursued a degree in Media Studies at Hunter College, specializing in Emerging Media (digital media production). She has experience in graphic design, web development, motion graphics and film, as well as media analysis. For FF2 Media, Bea creates original content for blog publication, writing out prompted ideas that engages audience. 
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