SXSW Film Review – The Short Game
I’ve long had a poorly formed theory that one can find a metaphor for anything in life through two games: chess and golf. Seriously. Both games balance on a line between science and art. While chess is often viewed as pure logic, there is a grace within the game that lies inside its confines, where little morality tales play themselves out across a checkered board. Meanwhile, golf is complex, frustrating, inscrutable, impossible to perfect, and when done well, can create a sort of universal harmony in the world. To quote one of my favorite sports movies, Tin Cup, when striking the ball “a tuning fork goes off in your heart…” Also, it’s just a lot of plain fun.
A new documentary shows us that fun side of golf. The Short Game, directed by Josh Greenbaum, profiles the yearly World Golf Championships for children age 8 and under at Pinehurst in North Carolina. While it is definitely one of the most famous golf courses in the country, I personally was unaware there was such a wealth of golf talent this young. These kids are amazingly talented, dedicated, and an awful lot of fun to watch. This is one of the more charming documentaries you are likely to see.
The filmmakers profile the top four girl and boy contenders in this amazingly young group. Unlike most American sports that claim to be World Championships (I’m looking at you, baseball and basketball), this tournament turns out to be a truly international affair. These really are the best players from around the globe.
First we meet reigning champ Alan Kournikova, whose famous tennis-playing older sister Anna is a household name. The Kournikova household is no stranger to grooming champions. Then we see Zama Nxasana from Johannesburg, who may be the most charming kid in the group. He has an ear-to-ear grin plastered across his face the entire time. Kuang Yang from China is self-taught. At two years old, he apparently badgered his parents into buying an instructional golf DVD (he mistakenly thought it was a cartoon), watched it over 100 times, and started teaching himself the game. Amari Avery from California models herself after Tiger Woods and plays with a massive intensity. Her father, who is not of upper class means, is hoping that this talent will be a ticket to paying for college and other opportunities for his daughter. Jed Dy is probably the most fascinating and moving profile in the film. A shy autistic boy from Manila with gregarious parents, he seems to be able to hyper focus on the game, becoming a prodigiously amazing golfer. Augustin Valery from France, great-grandson to famous French poet Paul Valery, is very self serious. While obviously great at golf, he at first comes across as almost a parody of the self-righteous Frenchman. Sky Sudberry from Texas is likely the smallest of frame in this group. But this girl shows one can play well and still be a sweet child. Alexa Pano from California is watched over by her single father. He definitely has a massive amount of emotional investment in her success.
In fact, a lot of these stories reiterate the power of familial support and hard work. Yes, most of these children live in households that are at least fairly well off. Golf is not cheap, and to maintain the levels of play on display here takes a great deal of money. It takes personal trainers, special equipment, lots of travel, etc. But the parental figures play an integral part in all of these successes (and a couple of failures). And all of these kids put in constant practice. There are shots of them continuing to use the driving range until the sun goes down, doing cardio workouts, and driving themselves to excel.
Yet the best part is, these kids are still kids. The Short Game is very charming because these don’t feel like fake showbiz kids with hovering stage mothers in the background. They talk, emote, wish, brag, cry, and act like real life children. It’s refreshing to watch something so sweet and genuine.
The Short Game is slickly edited, pleasingly shot, and entertaining. Not every documentary in the world has to turn into something super serious with grainy black and white footage of some terrible chapter of history. Documentaries, just like every other genre of film, can have a wide array of dispositions. This one may be on the lighter side, but it is definitely worth attention.
Final Grade: A-