On the night of October 3 at the London Film Festival something remarkable happened on the red carpet. No, it wasn’t the poster boy Timothée Chalamet, who was there to dazzle a throng of tweenie fans by wearing a star-covered hoodie while pacing about in front of the Odeon Leicester Square for the premiere of The King. It was on another carpet, a stone’s throw away at the Vue West End, where a second premiere was taking place.
This film was a deeply accomplished coming-of-age drama called Perfect 10, and the premiere might have been another workaday festival bun-fight were it not for the presence of its standout star, Frankie Box. The glamorous young woman was dressed in black, hair miraculously coiffured, jeweled necklace sparkling, the whole knockout ensemble topped off with a long white medical feeding tube attached to her nose.
“I was actually feeling quite positive that night,” says Frankie, 17, via Zoom from her home in Dartford, Kent. She says that the tube — which ran directly from her duodenum up through her gut, out of her nostril, across her face (held in place with medical tape) and down below her waist — was not a bother. “I’d had it in for so long by then that I had almost forgotten about it,” she says. “And my friends said that they didn’t even see it on my face anymore.” And besides, she adds, the premiere was extra special because earlier that day the staples had been removed from her stomach after a complicated operation to fit a gastric pacemaker. Beat that, Chalamet.
“My friends said that they didn’t even see it on my face anymore.”
Frankie had been afflicted with gastroparesis, an extremely rare digestive disorder. She puts it more simply: “My stomach stopped working.” She had been living undiagnosed with the illness since she was 11, experiencing crippling stomach cramps after every meal, relentless vomiting and multiple stays in hospital while being treated by puzzled physicians and suffering dangerous levels of weight loss. Several times at school she collapsed, unconscious.
It’s baffling to comprehend how, during these six years of incapacitating trauma, Frankie decided not to lie in bed and wallow. Instead she became a high-level gymnast, winning a bronze medal in the TeamGym British competition, and in 2018 moved into acting, starring in Perfect 10. She says that it’s not baffling at all, and that the body and mind can get used to anything, no matter how extreme. She coped with the rigors of gymnastics and acting — there were lots of night shoots in Perfect 10, and an elaborate gymnastics finale — simply by, well, doing it.
“By the time we started filming Perfect 10 I was so used to feeling sick and being in pain that it had just become part of my everyday life,” Frankie says. “So, for example, when I went to school I’d be in pain all day, then I’d come home and try and eat something, then go to gym and be in pain at gym, and sometimes be physically sick. I was so used to it that I started to think that somehow everyone must also be in pain. Honestly, it got to the point when I assumed that everyone must get stomach ache when you eat and that’s just what happens. Because I’d had it for so many years, and been told by so many doctors that there was nothing wrong with me, in my head I thought that I was being a drama queen and making a fuss over nothing.”
Her gymnastics coach had spotted the casting call for Perfect 10 on Facebook. And after a couple of auditions with Eva Riley, the young Scottish director, Frankie was cast as Leigh, an aspiring gymnast whose world is upended when she meets her hitherto undiscovered stepbrother Joe (Alfie Deegan), a petty criminal. He introduces her to the heady world of law-breaking (stealing motorbikes mostly), for which she displays an unerring affinity. Before long she must choose between gymnastics and crime, love and loyalty, old family and new friends.
The shoot, Frankie says, was an eye-opener, and she was startled by the large crew sizes needed for every scene. Eating before a big scene was a no-no, but she managed her condition by shifting her mealtimes about and scheduling snack times. The illness, in fact, helped her to “find” the character of Leigh, who, like Frankie, is good at hiding her feelings. “When I’d get ill I’d put a big front on, as if nothing was bothering me,” Frankie says. “I wouldn’t let anything get to me. Which is quite like Leigh.” The shooting finished in August 2018, not long after which Frankie’s health suddenly started to nosedive.
By then the condition had been officially diagnosed and she was waiting for an expensive operation to fit a pacemaker that might correct her malfunctioning stomach. The procedure is not covered by the NHS and so the $22,000 cost was crowdfunded by Frankie’s gym club. Her health was failing so swiftly, however, that she was worried the operation might never happen. “Right before my surgery I went downhill really quickly,” she says. “My stomach just shut down, the weight was falling off and you could see my bones. My face looked sunken. I was worried that they were going to cancel it.”
“In my head I thought that I was being a drama queen and making a fuss over nothing.”
Around this time, in the summer of 2019, Riley invited Frankie, her parents and younger sister to a screening room in London to view the finished film. Frankie is the obvious standout of the Brighton-set story, effortlessly charismatic as the no-nonsense Leigh, carrying every scene and lifting the film with that climactic and quietly moving gymnastics routine. When the lights went up her family were in tears, not because of the impact of the film, but because of how healthy she looked on screen compared with the cadaverous waif she had become in real life. “I wasn’t doing great at the time,” she says. “So obviously everyone found it really emotional. Even my dad was crying.”
The story has a happy ending. Frankie’s surgery was an unqualified success, the feeding tube has gone and she can now eat anything she wants, whenever she wants. The film has been a festival smash wherever it’s played — in February Frankie was treated like a celebrity at Annonay in France after it wowed at that festival. “When I’d go out for a meal people would come up and ask for a picture with me, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! This is real!’ ” she says. She has got herself an agent and done auditions, self-taped because of the pandemic.
For this singularly determined and unflappable person, there is only one future. “I had always loved doing gym, and had imagined continuing it after filming,” Frankie says. “But as I was doing the film I kept thinking, ‘You know what, I’m really enjoying this.’ And then it became, ‘This could actually be what I want to do.’ And then finally, when the film was finished, I decided, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ ”
A video of two Italian girls playing tennis between the rooftops of their apartment buildings during lockdown prompted a visit from Roger Federer who asked to join them. The winner of 20 Grand Slam competitions flew by private jet to Italy to play in situ with the friends after images of them lobbing balls from one building to the other was watched 12 million times on Twitter.
“I nearly fainted when he showed up,” Vittoria Oliveri, 13, said after meeting Federer with her friend, Carola Pessina, 11. “He is my favorite player. He figured out the distances pretty fast and started playing shots between his legs from one roof to another, which was amazing.” The girls, both keen players, started hitting balls between their rooftops in Finale Ligure, about 50 miles west of Genoa on the northwest coast, during Italy’s tough lockdown in April. They were unable to leave their homes but were under instruction from the coach at their club to keep practicing. Federer said that their games were a “wonderful idea”. He added: “Passion does not go away because of lockdown. That video resonated with a lot of people and with me too.”
Vittoria’s father, Massimo Oliveri, said that he came up with the idea of the match between the girls. “During lockdown we were trapped at home and would go up on the roof on Sundays for a barbecue, as would Carola’s family across the street,” he said. Mr Oliveri, a construction industry manager who specializes in restoring façades, said that he was used to working at height. “I first connected the roofs with a pulley system spanning the road below to swap food,” he said. “We would send sausages in return for prawns. I said to the girls: ‘Why don’t you hit a few balls to each other?’ After all the street below was deserted.”
Three stories up, the buildings are 28 feet apart. Mr Oliveri said that the girls stood 13 to 16 feet away from the edges to let the ball bounce. They had about the equivalent of a tennis court between them. The baselines on a court are 78 feet apart. When they played with Federer, they crept nearer the edge to volley the ball across. Vittoria’s mother sent a video of the girls playing to their tennis club, which posted it online. The clip went viral and was seen by millions, including Federer.
His appearance on the roof was organized and filmed by Barilla, the Italian pasta company for which he is an ambassador. The girls were kept in the dark, however, so their shock was real when Federer arrived ready to play. “I didn’t think he was real,” Vittoria said. “I thought it was a mannequin.” Carola shouted: “Grandma! Federer is on our rooftop.”
For the match, the girls played in a doubles pairing on the Pessinas’ roof against Federer on the Oliveris’ roof. “This was the first time I played tennis in a long, long time,” Federer said after the hour-long session, having sent a few balls onto the cars parked in the street. “They couldn’t believe I was making a lot of mistakes — they were better than me sometimes. They had home court advantage.”
In February, Federer had surgery on his right knee and a further procedure prompted him to declare in June that he will not play for the rest of the year. Carola said: “A few of his shots did miss and fell into the street while one ball landed on the balcony of a neighbor who handed it back.” Federer invited the girls to visit the tennis school run by his friend and rival, Rafael Nadal, in Mallorca.
Even though Vittoria was eliminated at a recent tennis tournament, she said: “It’s great to be back on a tennis court. It is easier and there is less risk of losing balls.”