There’s a cheesiness to the title of the new documentary “Skywalkers: A Love Story,” with that heart-on-its-sleeve subtitle baked in. Despite the images of lightsabers it may convey, this Sundance documentary premiere is not about Luke and his “Star Wars” kin, but rather two Russian daredevils who scale towering buildings to create social media content, and also happen to be in a romantic relationship.
If their portrayals in Jeff Zimbalist’s film are accurate, Angela Nikolau and Vanya Kuznetsov have a sweet corniness to them, thanks to all their platitudes about how their daring and illegal sport is also a metaphor for their love. The result is a film that mixes tense, thriller-like scenes of Nikolau and Kuznetsov in action with an ending that’s almost aggressively sentimental.
“Skywalkers” plays a little bit like a “Man on Wire” for the Instagram age, and it’s at its best when it’s focusing on the strategy that Nikolau and Kuznetsov’s stunts require, as well as the friction between them that adds another level of danger to their already ridiculous endeavors.
Using narration from both Nikolau and Kuznetsov, Zimbalist, who shares a co-directing credit with Maria Bukhonina, recounts what drove these two to this extreme lifestyle and how it brought them together. Nikolau is the daughter of circus performers with a distrust of commitment stemming from her father’s abandonment of her mother. As the trend of what is called “rooftopping” explodes in Russia, she sees a space to fill: There is a lack of women in the community, as well as a lack of artistry, and she makes her name by doing balletic poses when she reaches her summits.
Kuznetsov, who goes by Ivan Beerkus, describes himself as “loner,” who would follow guys to rooftops to drink, but was less interested in the imbibing than in the climbing. With a laidback attitude to his task, he makes it look easy.
They become a pair when he asks her to come along with him on a sponsored gig to climb a crane in China. Although she doesn’t really know him, she goes along for the ride, looking to hitch her wagon to his followers. It begins a partnership that, as is to be expected, develops into something more. They complement each other. He’s the more confident when it comes to getting to the top of these enormous structures, worrying about her safety; she’s more creative when it comes to making Instagram posts, considering herself an artist in the sky.
But, as in any coupling, there are hiccups. She considers him too critical, he doesn’t trust her. If the title didn’t tell us otherwise, we might think there’s a chance they could break up.
The climax of the film centers around their surmounting of Merdeka 118, the tallest building in Southeast Asia, a genuinely nail-biting sequence made more stressful by the fact that they are trapped inside for 30 hours when they have to hide so they aren’t caught and imprisoned. This section is also where the film is at its strongest in describing just how they do what they do, showing the heist-like aspect of their work and the way they pack the equipment required to make their images.
But “Skywalkers” also seems to gloss over too much. It never fully probes the mental state that drives someone to do this kind of thing in the first place, instead dealing with the squabbles that nearly wreck their union. (The fact that many of their peers have died is brushed over quickly.) Additionally, you’re left wondering the details around how they make their money, and the people who are willing to fund their illegal missions for promotion. (In one shot, they wear shirts emblazoned with the URL travel-ticker.com.) Who is buying their NFTs?
The geopolitical aspects of their story also go largely unexplored. One of the reasons they leave their home country with the mission of climbing Merdeka is the outbreak of war in the Ukraine and tightening restrictions of freedom of expression in Russia. The incredibly serious issues at hand are largely acknowledged by the subjects with only vague statements. As world travelers whose missions involve breaking the laws of whatever nation they visit, there is a blitheness with which they regard their roles in society.
Even with the glaring holes that Zimbalist leaves, it’s hard not to be engaged by “Skywalkers,” especially as the Merdeka 118 sequence unfolds. It’s the kind of “I can’t believe they’re doing this” material that invariably fascinates, and the fact that Nikolau and Kuznetsov happen to be both gorgeous and in love only helps.
Yet, by the time it’s all over, audiences will only be left with trite lessons about how couples need to balance each other out and support one another. For a movie about two people who do such an unusual thing, it’s an awfully basic note to end on. You’d think they’d go for something a bit more, well, lofty.
“Skywalkers: A Love Story” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.