With cinemas now awash with overly long, overly expensive, visual effects-driven franchise pieces – as they have been for some time – it is an absolutely relief to now and then stumble on a modest, small-scale, 90-minute movie. You probably have not heard of Golden Arm, a 2020 arm-wrestling comedy directed by Maureen Bharoocha. Its SXSW premiere was ruined by COVID-19, and its American release (via Utopia) was limited. Here in Australia it has quietly crept on SBS Online without notice or fanfare. The film is an absolute delight. It will not change your life. It will not transform your appreciation of cinema. What it will do is entertain you for an hour-and-a-half. I sometimes feel that, in this age of Jurassic World sequels and endless Marvel spin-offs, simply being funny and enjoyable without pretense has become a lost art.
In Golden Arm, Melanie (Mary Holland) runs a struggling bakery while undergoing a divorce from her odious ex-husband. Her best friend Danny (Betsy Sodaro) convinces her to embark on a road trip, with the secret intention of entering her into an arm-wrestling championship. If this is immediately making you think of widely derided 1980s drama Over the Top, you are not too far off the mark. Of course this film is actively aiming to be funny, rather than make its audience laugh by accident, and in all honesty this film more closely resembles another fairly obvious Sylvester Stallone sports vehicle.
It is not simply the training montages that Golden Arm and Rocky have in common, nor that they are both underdog narratives. It is that both are ultimately not about a competition but about self-respect. Just as the point of Rocky is not to beat Apollo Creed but rather simply go the distance, Golden Arm is about Melanie’s personal journey from aimlessness to finding purpose. It is an easy journey to like. Mary Holland is an enormously appealing performer – she effectively stole Happiest Season from under its leads’ noses, and she dominates the centre of the movie here. A circle of engaging characters surround her: notably Sodaro’s earthy, foul-mouthed best friend Danny, but also Dot-Marie Jones as the towering “Big Sexy” and Olivia Stamboulia as the villainous arm wrestling champion “Bonecrusher”.
Nothing in the story will surprise anybody, but in this case it honestly feels to be the point. The familiar narrative beats hit in a deliberately pleasing fashion. It provides an easy, comfortable background against which one can simply enjoy the characters. It is fun to recognise the Rocky moments, or the bits lifted from The Karate Kid, and any number of other similar films. Golden Arm isn’t going to set anybody’s world on fire, and it is clearly never going to gain enough popularity to be a significant cult favourite. It does exactly what it aims to do: it entertains. It does so lightly, and with tremendous charm.