That Skywalkers: A Love Story maintains its grip on your attention despite some of director Jeff Zimbalist’s florid aesthetic choices testifies to the strength of the documentary’s central narrative. At the heart of this terrifying and exhilarating Sundance entry about two Russian daredevils trying to save their relationship is a poignant lesson in trust.
Before Angela Nikolau and Ivan “Beerkus” Kuznetsov fell in love, they were rivals. The Russian rooftoppers — a term used to describe people who illegally scale tall structures without protective equipment — engaged in an unofficial competition of sorts. Nikolau, who was one of the few, if not the only, women in the sport at the time, felt both inspired by and envious of Beerkus’ success. Unlike other rooftoppers, the soft-spoken urban adventurer’s Instagram posts about his architectural conquests lent a professional air to the illegal activity. This posture partially influences Nikolau to see each roof as an opportunity to expand her artistry. The former Russian gymnast becomes famous for her elegant poses — helping to turn the dangerous activity into an art form.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
Like Free Solo or Man on Wire (which had its own Sundance premiere 16 years ago), Skywalkers: A Love Story introduces audiences to a more thrill-seeking sliver of our world. Through voiceover narration by Nikolau and Beerkus and helpful intertitles, Zimbalist (Pelé: Birth of a Legend, Favela Rising) grounds us in the rules and conventions of rooftopping without losing the momentum of the primary narrative. Most of the action is supplied by go pro videos gathered by the participants, but Zimbalist’s nervy cutting (with assistance from Alannah Byrnes) gives the archival clips and vérité-style footage shot by Renato Borrayo Serrano and Pablo Rojas urgency.
The film opens with a fraught scenario. In an attempt to save their relationship (more on that later), Nikolau and Beerkus decide to climb Merdeka 118 in Malaysia, which at the time of shooting was the tallest building in the world. After managing to bypass security at the entrance, the couple finds themselves trapped in an active construction zone. The chimes of the elevator signal that security has been called. To go undetected, Nikolau and Beerkus construct a “cave” — they re-arrange building materials in a corner — to hide their crouching bodies.
With this dramatic introduction, Skywalkers: A Love Story grabs us and doesn’t let go. Zimbalist, who spent six years collecting footage, whizzes us back to 2018 to offer background on how Nikolau and Beerkus began their careers. Part I constructs a portrait of Nikolau as a fiercely independent woman struggling to find her place in the world. She grew up in the circus and, through conversations with her grandma, we come to understand that those years following her parents on the road were the happiest. Unhappiness and depression settled into Nikolau’s life after her father left her mother for another woman. The sudden departure sours the rooftopper’s attitude toward relationships. Survival for Nikolau depends on relying only on yourself.
Beerkus, whose story makes up most of Part II, follows the same ethos even if he wouldn’t articulate it in such blunt terms. The tumultuousness of his childhood came from the intensity of his parents’ arguments. He started rooftopping as a teenager when he joined a local gang of boys who trespassed to climb and drink on top of Moscow’s tallest buildings. Beerkus didn’t imbibe, but he found that high in the sky, overlooking the city, he could breathe more easily. Scaling these buildings offered a reprieve from his family and became a kind of therapy.
Nikolau and Beerkus meet, quite humorously, because of a brand deal. In introducing a more artistic element to rooftopping, Nikolau draws the gaze of others within her field. That includes Beerkus, whose sponsors demand different and more surprising content from him. Part of Skywalkers speaks to the extractive relationship between brands and the influencers, nurtured in part by an insatiable appetite for content. The algorithm at once drives our cravings for novelty and shields us from what that requires.
After seeing Nikolau’s photos — ethereal shots in which the gymnast contorts her body into different shapes while standing on a ledge — Beerkus sends her a message. So begins their epic collaboration. Pushing past her initial hesitation, Nikolau flies to China to meet her future boyfriend. Of course, romance is not on either of their minds at the start. What they do know is that they work well together, and their partnership increases their follower account and brings in more sponsors.
Zimbalist is efficient with their early courtship, moving us along narratively and emotionally with voiceover summaries and a playful score. These choices help when we are just getting acquainted with the duo, but there’s an over-reliance on them in later sections. One wishes Zimbalist would let his extraordinary footage speak for itself; these videos reveal more about the couple than their voiceovers, which include unnecessarily clichéd exposition. Whether it’s go-pro footage of a madcap escape in France or excerpts of interviews the pair did in Russia after they announced their relationship, we can see that Nikolau and Beerkus have fallen madly, deeply in love.
Their affection is underscored by the changes in their climbs. You can hear Beerkus, who never had to care about anyone but himself during his conquests, reminding Nikolau to be careful. “Don’t rush, stay safe” becomes the tagline of their relationship — a sign of increased mutual dependence and care.
It’s heartbreaking when it morphs into a source of tension. The emotional landscape Zimbalist charts with Skywalkers: A Love Story is impressive. Lockdowns at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic enfeebled Beerkus and Nikolau’s careers. The Russian war on Ukraine and the increased state repression that followed anti-war protests unsettles the lovers. Any relationship would suffer under the concurrent threats of global disease and war, but there’s particular heartbreak when this fate befalls Beerkus and Nikolau.
The decision to climb Merdeka 118 is a desperate attempt to make some money and save their relationship. The couple’s fights, which started before the pandemic, keep getting worse. Beerkus develops anxieties around Nikolau’s safety, and she accuses her boyfriend of holding her back. Because of Zimbalist’s structure, it’s easy to connect their childhood traumas to threads in their own conflict. Without sponsors, money is also an issue. When Beerkus and Nikolau decide to climb the Malaysian building despite the risk to their lives (they could end up in jail, die or end up in jail and die), we are, against our own better judgment, rooting for them.
In the final act of Skywalkers: A Love Story, the stakes are higher. Zimbalist chronicles the 10 weeks leading up to the historic climb like a heist. It’s thrilling to watch the pair gather intel on the building, come up with a plan and practice the routine they plan to do on its small roof. There are clashes and arguments, tears and accidents. But there are also moments of joy and a warm feeling that comes from watching two people realize how much they need each other.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter