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Lioness Review: Sweet coming-of-age sports movie

The football players all wear light blue and hug each other smiling in a still from the movie Lioness (Leeuwin)

While formulaic, the Dutch football movie Lioness boasts a winning central performance and captures the perky energy of its subject sport.

Lioness (Leeuwin) is a movie built by a formula. It belongs alongside the long list of films that flooded the movie market in the wake of the success of Rocky about an athletically talented underdog that triumphs over adversity in order to win a big game in the end. There is not a scene in Lioness that is not found in an earlier movie. Nothing is left to chance. Yet, by the end of Lioness, I found myself charmed and pleasantly delighted. It is a movie with such perky good humor and vivacious energy that it becomes, if not engrossing, entertaining. 

Living on the Island of Suriname with her family, teenager Rosi (Alyssa van Ommeren) is obsessed with football, and exceptionally gifted at the sport. One day she returns home from a pick-up game to news that her father has received a promotion at work. With very little fanfare the family is packing up and relocating to the Netherlands. Rosi is devastated to leave behind the only home she had known, especially a beloved Grandmother, the number one supporter of her athletic dreams. The homesickness is only slightly tempered through the excitement of learning that she can join a local girl’s football club. 

Quickly, Rosi impresses the coach (Soumaya Ahouaoui) and is determined to be the best player on the football club. Rosi is immediately put in a critical position on the team, taking the place of her new friend Jitte (Apollonia Sterckx), and is frequently called upon by the coach to make the game-winning play. Rosi’s preternatural talent for the sport and quick ascension causes a rift with Jitte and catches the ire of a Val Kilmer in Top Gun-like frenemy Chloe (Manou Jue Cardoso). Is it a girl’s fault that she is more talented than everyone else? 

Through Rosi’s various interactions with Jitte and Chloe, Lioness is able to capture with tremendous accuracy the melodramatic, life-and-death feeling of interactions during your teenage years. A side-ways glance can mean that your BFF secretly hates you and has been lying the entire time. Compounded onto that, Lioness understands the anxiety that sports adds on top of being a teenager, where missing a shot means it’s almost certain that schoolmates are laughing and saying nasty things behind your back. Rosi isn’t concerned so much with her football skills as much as what the other girls on the team think of her, and that feels true to being a teenager.

Alyssa van Ommeren looks at her friend in a still from the movie Lioness (Leeuwin)
A still from the movie Lioness (Leeuwin) (Splendid Film / NYICFF)

Without the proper calibration, Rosi could have come off as an “All I Do Is Win” character,  the type that Tom Cruise would play in the 80s and 90s. The problem of Rosi’s that Lioness dedicates the most screen time to is “I’m so good at football that people are jealous of me.” She is never shown practicing, only performing tricks with her ball, and only misses a goal once at the very beginning of the movie.  Rosi should be insufferable and impossible to root for, and she would be, if not for the winning performance of Alyssa van Ommeren.

Van Ommeren doesn’t try to bluster and flirt with the audience, but makes the audience come to her, a mature and compelling decision. She characterizes Rosi not as the brash hothead typical of the protagonists of this sort of story, but as a warm and intelligent introvert. The performance is all in Van Ommeren’s eyes, as she processes information and reacts to those around her. When the coach says that Rosi is cool under process you believe her. 

It’s no surprise when Rosi scores the final goal at the big game, but by the time that scene arrived, I didn’t really care. The adrenaline-pumping speed and energy of a football game makes it an inherently cinematic sport, and Leeuwin is able to capture that quality with an infectious enthusiasm. It got to me. I wanted to see Rosi make up with Jitte, find out that Chloe is a friend and win the game. And I suspect that many other viewers will feel the same. 

Lioness (Leeuwin) will be have its New York Premiere at NYICFF 2024 on March 10-16, 2024.

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