Written by: Hannah Tran | February 8th, 2024
Skywalkers: A Love Story (Jeff Zimbalist/Maria Bukhonina, 2024) 3 out of 5 stars
Similar to the couple at its center, Skywalkers: A Love Story knows no bounds. This anxiety-inducing documentary delves into the world of “rooftopping,” the social-media-induced phenomenon where people attempt to scale tall structures to obtain the perfect photograph. It focuses on a Russian rooftopping couple, Angela Nikolau and Vanya Beerkus, whose 2022 attempt to conquer Malaysian skyscraper Merdeka 118 put their career and relationship on the line. Skywalkers has a lot of ideas and can feel like a love story, a sports drama, and a heist movie all at once. And while some of these ideas don’t fully land, it is a visually staggering and mostly entertaining experience.
There are times when Skywalkers feels like a scene ripped from a Mission: Impossible movie. The way Nikolau and Beerkus push the limits of humanity makes for unreal imagery that begs to be seen on the big screen. There is a genuine sense of danger that extends beyond the final product of their endeavors, and this is most evident in the absolutely electrifying final thirty minutes of the movie, which tonally transforms into a heist film.
Where Skywalkers falters is in its titular love story. While I saw a number of comparisons between this and 2022’s Fire of Love, the couple here is far more difficult to root for. While they are sweet in the beginning, it is hard to get over the fact that they are risking their lives—and each other’s—for what essentially boils down to selling NFTs. As their relationship progresses, it is difficult to look past their complicated dynamic. In addition, their voiceover musings on love and trust feel overly scripted and often clichéd. There is a strong emotional moment, however, in which Nikolau, whose parents were circus performers, seems to genuinely grow as she finds a metaphor in the trust it takes to be a trapeze artist.
This film seems fully empathetic toward them and takes pains to understand their financial and cultural predicament as two Russian influencers who are in the middle of a larger conflict regarding censorship. However, the setup of these political and cultural struggles also makes me wish that the film would dive deeper into the reasons why rooftopping became popularized in Russia to begin with. There are a lot of elements that are similarly underexplored, such as the dangers of rooftopping, itself. A scene where Nikolau discovers that most of her former circle of rooftoppers have died is one of the film’s most devastating moments, but is ultimately brushed aside by the message about trust and triumph.
But although Skywalkers doesn’t fully sell its subjects’ mission, the intimacy of this look at their unique and illegal livelihood is impressive. It seems important as a time capsule of people leading a major modern trend that could only exist with the invention of social media. And whether rooftopping is a sport, an art, or pure stupidity, it’s definitely hard to look away from.
[Skywalkers just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition.]