‘She Looks Like Me’ Review: A Scattershot Doc About One of the Most Incredible Sports Stories Ever

Born without legs in October 1987 and immediately abandoned at the hospital by her biological parents, Jen Bricker was adopted by a small-town Illinois couple — who already had three boys — and raised to believe she could do anything she put her mind to. Her parents, Gerald and Sharon, gently encouraged their daughter to remove the word “can’t” from her vocabulary, and so Bricker never thought twice about playing with or competing against the other kids at her school.

She excelled across a variety of different sports, but her greatest passion was reserved for gymnastics. Obsessed from the moment she first saw future gold medalist Dominique Moceanu perform one of her floor routines on TV (“She was tiny but she was strong, just like me”), Bricker devoted herself to becoming a brilliant power tumbler, and when she was 11 she placed fourth in the AAU Junior Olympic Games despite being the only disabled athlete in competition.

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Based on that remarkable saga of persistence and possibility, a movie about Bricker’s life might sound like a piece of inspiration porn in the making, but — as anyone who saw Bricker’s segment on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” already knows, and could never forget — this story has a gobsmacking plot twist that flips the whole thing on its head. “Real Sports” revealed that mind-blowing twist with an effectiveness worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, but Torquil Jones’ “She Looks Like Me” practically gives it away in its title before laying the truth bare after just 15 minutes.

A feature-length documentary born out of a viral HBO clip and the memoir that followed, Jones’ film refuses to pretend as if it’s telling Bricker’s story for the first time. On the contrary, it plays down the impact of its earth-shaking bombshell in order to focus on the quieter aftershocks that have reverberated through her world during the two decades since that initial detonation — since the day when she casually asked her mom if she knew anything about her birth parents, and Sharon Bricker finally confessed to her daughter that the surname written on her birth certificate was “Moceanu.” Dominique wasn’t just her idol, she was also her older sister.

A less disciplined filmmaker might hold onto that incredible trump card for as long as possible (it’s easy to imagine how this story might have mistold during the shock-doc heyday of movies like “Tickled” and “Three Identical Strangers”), but Jones — whose sports-oriented work also includes “Villeneuve Pironi” and “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” — recognizes it as his way into a richer, messier story about nature vs. nurture. And from that story is born another: One about two genetically similar women living polar opposite lives who give each other the strength to defy what society expects of their bodies and voices.

“She Looks Like Me” studiously avoids anything that might be construed as “inspiration porn,” but Jones is so awed by his subjects that he struggles with his determination to keep the uplift at bay. As the film introduces Moceanu as a co-lead and begins drawing our attention to the echoes between the two sisters’ ostensibly dissimilar experiences, you can feel Jones straining to downplay — or at least delay — the raw emotionality of this material in order to preserve the integrity of the story it’s telling. As a result, the documentary’s focus is less on either of the siblings than on the places where they overlap, an approach that lends itself to a mosaic with admirable intentions but modest returns.

In light of the movie that follows, Jones’ melodramatic decision to kick things off in a Romanian church — complete with choral chanting over the soundtrack — feels like something of a headfake, especially once Bricker, a veteran of the speaking tour circuit, steps into the spotlight and recounts her story with the calmness and grace of someone who’s already told it a million times over. She remembers a happy childhood with parents who encouraged her to heed her natural drive (“She’s got the push,” Bricker’s dad once said as he watched his toddler move back and forth on a rocking chair), and recalls that her physical insecurity had nothing to do with her legs; she only hated the fact that her arms were so muscular, and made all the more so by her wheelchair. Bricker obviously makes a note of the Moceanu poster she had on her bedroom wall, but neither she nor Jones overstates the extent to which she worshiped the gymnast.

For Bricker, who everyone pitied without reason, Moceanu was a living fantasy. For Moceanu, who everyone assumed was on top of the world, her reality was quite a bit harsher. The emotional abuse started with her father, forced to abandon his own dreams of gymnastic glory when he fled Ceaușescu’s Romania; naturally, he put the burden of those dashed hopes on his daughter’s pint-sized shoulders. Bricker was raised to believe she could be anything, while Moceanu was raised to be an Olympian or nothing. The pressure, which was greatly exacerbated by the win-at-all-costs mentality of coach Béla Károlyi, eventually proved too heavy to bear on the world’s biggest stage. As Bricker grew into her own woman and soared — as an aerial dancer — with the support of her parents, Moceanu was forced to emancipate herself from her family in order to have a shot at living her own life.

Through it all, Bricker’s attempts to reach Moceanu and let her know about her existence were unsuccessful. “She Looks Like Me” makes it easy to appreciate how frustrating that must have been for Bricker, as this long middle section of the movie feels similarly helpless and adrift. We learn that Bricker was in a Britney Spears video, and that she met her husband on a speaking tour in Austria. Likewise, we learn that Moceanu eventually ran her gym, on her own terms, even as she struggled to shake the demons from her time as an elite athlete; demons like notorious medical trainer Larry Nassar, who exploited a culture of silence to sexually abuse hundreds of young athletes during his years as the team doctor for the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team.

“She Looks Like Me” mines real poignancy from the defiant strands of power it uses to connect its related subjects, but Jones is so fascinated by the unconscious resonances between these sisters — and so hesitant to explore how their lives became more literally interwoven when they finally met each other — that much of this narrative is shaped into a padded jumble, even when it screams for clarity. The chapter on Nassar, for example, is obviously of the utmost importance for several different reasons (including how it found Moceanu tapping into the outspoken strength that Bricker displayed as a child), but Jones’ film makes it hard to place Moceanu’s testimony in the timeline of her relationship with Bricker, and to know how directly their sisterhood contributed to her decision to speak out.

It’s the most striking of several different moments that suggests Jones is keeping the sisters apart for some reason — whether as a tactic, or because they left him no other choice. His reasons for doing so only start to become a bit clearer towards the end of the film, as “She Looks Like Me” finally turns its attention to the question that has loomed over it from the start: Why did Bricker’s birth parents abandon her? The answer we’re provided is predictable and heartbreaking in equal measure, and it retroactively clarifies the documentary’s consistent focus on the role that cyclical patterns of behavior can play in determining the shape of our lives.

It also clarifies why the girls’ shared birth mother — still alive — wasn’t interviewed for the movie. On the other hand, the movie’s closing minutes only left me with more questions about Jones’ access, or lack thereof: Why is there so little footage of Bricker and Moceanu together? Why don’t they more candidly discuss how it felt to meet for the first time, and/or how being in each other’s lives has allowed them to better understand their own strength? Did Moceanu limit her own involvement in the movie in order to minimize how painful the project might be for her mother? That in itself would be a compelling detail, but “She Looks Like Me” neglects to broach any such complications. Despite Jones’ praise-worthy refusal to reduce this incredible story to its most digestible emotions, his film lacks the same inner strength that it reveals so beautifully in its subjects.

Grade: C+

“She Looks Like Me” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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