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Short Game, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Great kids playing outstanding golf is a fun combination."
5 stars

It feels like it's been a while since a documentary about kids who do something well and compete to see who does it the best has worked its way into a decent number of theaters, and "The Short Game" is a good one. Sure, It skews far more toward the adorable than the controversial, but not beyond the bounds of credibility. Anyway, there are far less enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon at the movies than watching second-grade golfers.

The filmmakers pay visits to seven-and-eight-year-olds from around the world before they converge on Pinehurst, North Carolina for the annual children's golf championships. There's Allan Kournikova, a seven-year-old extrovert from Palm Beach who won the tourney in his age group last year and whose older sister is also a well-known tennis player; Zamokuhle "Zama" Nxasana, an outgoing South African boy; Kuang Yang, a Shenzhen boy who picked up an instructional DVD at two thinking it was a cartoon; Alexa Pano, last year's girls' champion and Allan's best friend; Jed Dy of Manila, autistic but high-functioning; Augustin Valery, a Parisian eight-year-old from a family of achievers; Sky Sudbury, a pink-clad pixie who shows not everything is bigger in Texas; and Amari Avery, an intense competitor called "Tigress" for how much of her background she shares with Tiger Woods. All are shadowed by "Daddy Caddies" (even if, in some cases, it's the mother) who take things quite seriously themselves.

First and foremost, they're a great bunch of kids, whether they love playing to the camera as much as Allan or shy from it like Jed. As focused as they can be when playing golf - and the crazy hours they put into it, from early morning strength training to hitting balls right up to bedtime - they are all bright, energetic, funny kids who smile a lot, ramble the way that children that age are prone to do. In most if not all of the cases shown, their enthusiasm seems to come from themselves rather than pushy parents. And while parental intensity can be a lot less fun than the kids' in these stories, what we see of them is often less pushy than having to learn how to handle very talented kids - and even that is somewhat in the background.

Director Josh Greenbaum does a good job of introducing the kids to us, especially since this movie seems to be pitched at kids as much as their parents. Rather than introducing everyone quickly and then cutting back and forth to follow preparation as the tournament approaches, the filmmakers instead spend five minutes or so with each subject, letting each one establish his or her own personality while making sure the kids introduced earlier aren't forgotten by having natural callbacks. Bits of golf terminology and descriptions of how players train make their way in, and it's a good decision to have much of it come from the kids rather than the adults; making the scenes cute for grown-ups and feel more accessible for young moviegoers.

The second half of the movie is the tournament, a three-day affair broken into boys seven and under (Allan, Kuang); eight-year-old boys (Zama, Jed, Augustin); girls seven and under (Alexa); and eight-year-old girls (Sky & Amari). Narration increases during this part of the movie, and it plays as a combination of play-by-play and filling in gaps of the story, and the movie does a nice job of giving the audience the feeling of watching it as sports and following the stories of these people that we'd been introduced to earlier. As intense as the kids and parents can be on the field, there's a delightfully pronounced shift once they've finished their nine holes and are wrestling, running through hallways, and building sand castles in the bunkers.

It's a very slick production, much more so than with many documentaries of the type, with a nifty tilt-shift shot opening the movie to make a golf course look like it's the scale of dolls or toys. Some shots obviously recreated so that the camera can swing around a golfer or follow the ball into the hole, although the children and parents playing and interacting is mostly shown clearly and without tricks. There's nary a grainy, consumer-grade shot to be found, hinting at some solid support behind the production.

Put it together, and the result is polished and upbeat enough to look like an ad for youth golf to the very cynical. Still, not a lot of those ads have such a likable cast (that is multi-ethnic and international almost without comment, with attention split fairly evenly between the boys and girls) or do such a good job of letting kids be kids while making a subtle sport look exciting. "The Short Game" aims to be an entertaining sports documentary for the whole family, and doesn't have to settle for par.

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originally posted: 09/24/13 02:25:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2013 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Maui Film Festival For more in the 2013 Maui Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 10-Jun-2014



Directed by
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