Maureen Bharoocha’s Golden Arm applies the irresistible combination of long-haul trucking and competitive arm wrestling in the tradition of Menahem Golan’s 1987 Sylvester Stallone cult nugget Over the Top. Close friendship replaces father-son bonding as the emotional heartbeat of the story, and Bharoocha, working from a funny screenplay by Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, capitalizes on the opportunity to imagine a cartoonish subculture grounded in pathos. Originally programmed as part of the canceled 2020 South by Southwest festival, Golden Arm had to settle for a small theatrical run and an April 2021 on-demand release. As a result, the film has received less love and attention than it deserves.
In Golden Arm, television comedy and Upright Citizens Brigade veteran Mary Holland stars as Melanie, an about-to-be-divorced baker struggling to make a success of her profession. Truck-driving best friend Danny, played by fellow UCB alum Betsy Sodaro, convinces Mel to close up shop for a few days and join her on a delivery. Bharoocha rockets through basic exposition on the way to revealing Danny’s real plan: enter Mel into the arm wrestling nationals being held in Oklahoma City. The purse is 15 grand, but the bigger prize is an opportunity for the pals to rebuild the tight bonds of their younger days.
Naturally, the cautious, vanilla Mel (who blanches at Danny’s liberal use of descriptive profanity, especially a certain term applied to genitalia) initially resists the call to step up in Golden Arm, but Danny’s powers of persuasion and the desperation to collect the handsome winnings convince her otherwise. Unable to compete, Danny’s own wrestling arm is wrapped up in a brace, which adds another layer of pressure. Bharoocha seizes on the script’s episodic structure to explore multiple genres; Golden Arm works as both a road movie and as a tournament/elimination-style sports contest, but the relationship of Mel and Danny always sits squarely at the heart of the film.
Bharoocha also manages a colorful gallery of Golden Arm supporting characters, each of whom adds to the circus. Revealing a steady hand and deft touch for romance, the director nails the scenes shared by Holland and Eugene Cordero, who plays referee Greg. The dialogue anticipating their flirtatious magic hour kiss against a chain link fence at a baseball diamond is one of the year’s sexiest screen conversations. De rigueur training montages get an assist from Dot-Marie Jones. Olivia Stambouliah’s Brenda the Bone Crusher, Mel and Danny’s bête noire, is a delightfully hissable nemesis (so many of the arm wrestling personae boast sweet monikers). Ron Funches as organizer Carl, Danny’s friends-with-benefits hookup, is as wonderfully awkward as Ahmed Bharoocha’s Jerry, who serves as Danny’s personal gofer and Swiss Army knife.
It is not difficult to picture a studio-backed Golden Arm with a bigger budget and the likes of Kristen Wiig as Mel and Melissa McCarthy as Danny, but the scrappier and scruffier version that got made is somehow more perfect because of its limitations and rough edges. Holland and Sodaro are so effortlessly good together, their characters evoking the kind of visual contrast unforgettably rendered by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, that they deserve every bit as much recognition as better known A-list comics. The scene-stealing Sodaro’s work as the lusty, foul-mouthed, wrecking-ball extrovert is equal to the best of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.