After dance battles (The Proud Family Movie, You Got Served, the Step Up saga), arm wrestling is likely the most hilarious, dignified way to settle any score. Nothing says you’ve been bested quite like an opponent gripping your palm and forcing the skin on the back of your hand to touch the surface of some grimy tabletop, eh? In Golden Arm, a delicious indie comedy that’s planned 2020 fest debut was unfortunately canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak, two friends immerse themselves in the formidable world of competitive women’s arm wrestling. The funny and worthwhile film, directed by Maureen Bharoocha, is a centralization of both female friendship and the glory of arm wrestling that contains the witty repartee and quarter-life crisis meditations of fellow indie comedies like Save Yourselves! and The Boy Downstairs.
Danny (Betsy Sodaro) is a truck driver and familiar face in the arm wrestling scene, a la Over the Top. She’s scrappy, animated and sexy in this “I’m going to punch you in the face and you’re going to love it” way that is two parts hilarious to every one part heartwarming. Danny’s top-knot, graphic tees and potty mouth heavily contrast with her best friend Melanie (Mary Holland), a baker. Melanie is polite, a little vanilla, and down and out when we first meet her. Her bakery is struggling and she’s settling a divorce with her soon-to-be ex-husband Steve (Matt Newell), an exhausting fratty dude who conjures the same unnamed sadness and unearned vainglory of Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite.
After Danny sustains a wrist injury during a bout with vicious champion (and cheater) Brenda the Bonecrusher (Olivia Stambouliah), she convinces Melanie to take a week off of work to help her complete a truck delivery. Little does Melanie know, Danny truly intends to train Melanie to defeat Brenda the Bonecrusher and win the Oklahoma City Women’s Arm Wrestling competition’s $15,000 cash prize. The titular “golden arm” refers to an arm wrestler who fits Melanie’s description: Seemingly petite and unintimidating, but with surprising strength.
Golden Arm’s comedy is elevated by its triple genre duty as it incorporates sports film and road movie elements. Credit for the equally effective genre blending and clever dialogue should be given to Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, Golden Arm’s writers, and the film’s talented cast. Right off the bat, in Golden Arm’s opening scene, Danny battles a man in an arm wrestling bout. She beats him both in trash talk and in the match.
The man asks, “Where’s your pink pussy hat?” Danny replies, “At home covering my giant dildos.” Très magnifique. A chef’s kiss of a response. It’s giving me casual hilarity, partially because that’s a wicked retort but also because there is no hesitation or apprehension in her voice, only confidence. Danny deals with slimeball misogynists in back-alley bars all the time and she knows how to handle them. What could just be funny throwaway lines are consistently enriched by Sodaro and the rest of Golden Arm’s cast.
The film constantly buttresses its comedic elements with the dramatic, character-building facets of its sport, while the pace of the film is kept succinct by Danny and Melanie’s constant travels and Bharoocha’s direction. Once Danny and Melanie are on the road and Melanie has agreed to give arm wrestling a go, they stop at multiple dive bars and lamp-lit clubs where Danny’s notoriety allows her to enlist the help of fellow arm wrestlers to train Melanie as they get closer to Oklahoma City, where the championships take place. This stop-hopping translates to swift pacing that helps build narrative momentum as Melanie approaches geographical proximity to, and emotional preparedness for, the wrestling competition.
Along the way, Golden Arm’s tightly edited, quintessential training montages contain some of its strongest moments and effectively showcase the strength of the film’s character actors who deliver refreshing, sharp performances. There’s Stambouliah, who kills as Brenda the Bonecrusher, an antagonist so campy and evil that her villainy resulted in some hard belly laughs when it wasn’t making me scowl. There’s Eugene Cordero as Greg, an umpire at the Arm Wrestling Competition who Melanie develops feelings for after the pair accidentally get dressed in the same room before a bout. Cordero’s comedic timing and sex appeal further substantiate my theory that every non-white man on The Good Place would make a fantastic lead in a romantic comedy. Last, but certainly not least, Dot-Marie Jones (who my fellow late ‘90s babies may know from Glee and that episode of Lizzie McGuire where Lizzie becomes a gymnast) plays Big Sexy, a heralded champion arm wrestler invaluable to Melanie’s character development. Jones’ solid stoicism further comically contradicts poor mousey Melanie.
They all compliment Holland and Sodaro, who have such compatible comedic chemistry that the juxtaposition of their polar opposite characters and interconnected personal journeys are a reliably funny bedrock (especially good in silly brace-faced flashback sequences) upon which the film rests despite its classic construction. During an especially splendid exchange, Holland and Sodaro take turns gagging at the sight of a wrestling injury. Every time you think they are about to break, they keep grimacing in heightened, cartoonish ways.
Aside from the impressive performances of Golden Arm’s ensemble cast, its genre work and effective pacing, Melanie’s journey to learn how to fight rather than flee or fawn in the face of difficult situations is the film’s most compelling element. Credit again must be given to Allison and Milly, as well Holland’s performance. This collaborative work leverages the wrestling competition as a symbolic challenge in which Melanie learns how to face the greater flaws, doubts and fears she possesses.
At one point when questioning whether she is capable of succeeding in competition Melanie asks Danny, “What if every choice I make is the wrong one?” Here Melanie is questioning her choice not only to compete in this competition—she is referring to the dissolution of her marriage, the potential of losing her bakery, her teetering friendship with Danny. As Melanie trains for competitions, cultivates her wrestling persona and accepts Danny’s encouragement, learning how to fight for her life and see herself as the contender that she trains to become.
Golden Arm is a winner. It is a comedy that’s simple premise is elevated by its standout performances, the delivery of the talented cast and its savvy blend of genres. The film’s unabashed exploration of women and their badassery sheds light upon a rarely explored sector of the sports world and demonstrates how vital female friendships are to the personal maturation of women in transit. Its meditations on the strength and communal support it takes for passive people to learn how to face their problems head-on reinforce an inspiring sentiment: Despite life’s foreseen and unseen obstacles, no one has to be strong-armed by the challenges in their lives if they have self-confidence, grit and community.
Director: Maureen Bharoocha
Writer: Ann Marie Allison, Jenna Milly
Stars: Mary Holland, Betsy Sodaro, Olivia Stambouliah, Eugene Cordero
Release Date: April 30, 2021
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.