There’s a moment about halfway into The Short Game in which one of the film’s main kids — 7-year old Allan Kournikova, little brother of the famous Tennis star– sits at a table eating breakfast before the day’s tournament begins, with him about to defend a a world championship title against a field of insanely talented competitors. His thoughts in this moment?
“I’ve been under this kind of pressure, like, five million times.”
He then stuffs nearly half of a syrup-covered pancake into his mouth and chomps down without missing a beat.
It’s this absolutely un-self-aware quality that makes every single one of the eight stars of The Short Game an absolute joy to watch. The 100 minute documentary covers the background of a bundle of 7 and 8 year olds who in 2012 all descended on the world’s foremost junior golf tournament, located in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The film covers their tournament showing after providing a glimpse of the context in which these children have managed to become world-class golfers. Forget the golf puns- the film is flat-out excellent. Like last year’s Brooklyn Castle proved, there’s just something enormously gratifying about watching kids be really great at things!
Right away The Short Game stands apart by virtue of its subject matter- supernaturally talented child golf players. This is the case because by its nature, golf is a game the represents skills and concerns that are entirely antithetical to the experiences and characteristics of most children. Golf is a game of patience, focus, and the subtle refinement of acute rhythms. Even more striking is that it is a game in which one is judged purely by their own performance, with no team and very little luck involved to obscure the fact that you’re very much putting the whole of yourself up for competition. Most kids –even kids that have that spark of excellence in them so early– are involved in team sports and other hobbies that provide some kind of safety net. Not so here. That these children managed to take a an unlikely talent and apply it to this particular sport is particularly remarkable, and it’s no accident that at least half the kids point to Tiger Woods as their inspiration. You don’t just fall into golf –unless you’re Kuang Yang, who asked for a golf DVD because he thought it was a cartoon when he was four– and it’s not the kind of game that one conquers immediately.
With all of that in mind, it’s no surprise that covering some of the world’s best child golfers means you’re going to meet some amazing kids. From the aforementioned Allan, who has lived a life surrounded by excellence, to Jed Dye, an autistic child from the Philippines who both fuels and transcends his hyper-focused behavior through golf, every single player brings an incredible story to the links. The make-up of the cast means that stories of privilege and juxtaposed against stories of socio-economic struggle, meanwhile boys and girls in different stages of development and maturity (which oftentimes has nothing to do with actual age) compete in very directly personal ways. The film is great about putting every kid on equal footing and making it clear that, say, even the skills of kids coming from privilege are hard-won by mind-boggling dedication, without ignoring the adversity other kids have pushed through.
What the film is ultimately concerned with is capturing the way in which each child contains both the normal joy, silliness, and emotional immaturity alongside the highly-developed focus and skills they bring to each swing. This naturally puts a spotlight on the parents, a few of which become strong supporting players in the story. Different parenting styles are evident, and it’s not tough to spot that trend of parents vicariously living through their children. Still, these parents trying to find their way like any other- some cool and confident and others struggling to manage their emotions right along with the kids they’re trying to guide. Those relationships bring out the toughest and the most joyful moments throughout the film. More than one parents alludes to their anxiety at trying to raise children whose excellence demonstrably outstrips their own- a conundrum that all parents face on one level or another.
Technically the film is remarkable- skillfully and beautifully captured, energetically cut, and smartly structured. A cheeky soundtrack and judicious use of sound effects accentuate the personalities of each child and impressively conveys the power and precision of each kid’s game. Everything we see is in the context of golf, and there’s no reality show antics involved, keeping the film breathy and easy to watch. There’s suspense and drama of course, but director Josh Greenbaum never forgets what the film is really about.
Honestly, The Short Game is about as close to perfect a documentary as is possible, within the context of its subject matter. You find yourself witnessing these children learn small lessons on the course and being inspired by the work they’ve put in to get where they are. At the core of it all though, is the fascinating examination of that “X factor” or “It” quality that marks a true champion. Each kid has it in their own way, and that indefinable charisma is obvious every moment. And then one of them makes a fart joke and giggles uncontrollably, and you almost forget they’re –for this moment anyway– literally the best in the world at something…
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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