Hi! Thanks for coming back to talk about The Short Game (or, if you haven't seen it yet, check it out here). There's a moment early on where Alexa, a 7-year-old worldwide frontrunner in her U.S. Kids Golf age group, sinks a practice putt and attempts to high-five her caddy father. She jumps and lunges and tries to slap his hand, but he moves and waves and withholds.
Your immediate reaction is, "ugh, sports parents are the worst. Congratulate your daughter, dude." But upon closer inspection, Alexa is laughing. Her father cracks a smile. This is a game to them. No matter how good she is, or how what her professional future holds, she's still just a kid jumping around on grass with her dad.
If you come to The Short Game looking for an exposé of how badly behaved sports parents can be, this is not the documentary for you. In fact, there may be no greater celebration of the bond between child sports prodigies and their parents than Josh Greenbaum's 2013 film about child golfers competing in the World Championships of Junior Golf. The Short Game extends that levity through the ups and downs of the three-day tournament in which its eight subjects compete. A documentary in the vein of the terrific Spellbound (child spelling bees), Mad Hot Ballroom (child ballroom dancing), and The King of Kong (man-child Donkey Kong tournament), The Short Game is cinematic and moving and exuberant in a genuine, non-cloying way. It's a Netflix Original — and not coincidentally, Netflix's logo and banner grace both this page and this entire exercise — but I'd still stake my reputation on The Short Game being one of the best sports documentaries I've seen in years.
Whoever chose the film's eight primary kids deserves all the credit for this film's success. In the first half of The Short Game we meet each kid in their place of residence, from locales as far-flung as Shenzhen, China; Paris, France; and Johannesburg, South Africa. These slice-of-life vignettes are incredibly endearing (not to mention straight-up educational — who knew kids' golf was such a huge deal?) and makes us really and truly care about the characters before they all arrive in North Carolina for the main competition. A few of the kids stick out right away: Ruddy blonde Allan (Anna Kournikova's baby brother!) is blustery and charming; tiny barrel-shaped Zama laughs at almost anything at anytime; Jed is a high-functioning autistic child who actively dislikes the trophies and attention he receives for winning; Augustin is the great-grandson of author Paul Valery; Amari is an eerily familiar female version of a certain other golf megastar, to the extent that she's known as Tigress. Chalk it up to good casting or just Greenbaum's ability to differentiate the kids through music and editing motifs, but these kids are memorable and vivid and real — which makes it that much worse when they experience defeat.
Greenbaum exercises not only a savviness in structure and satisfying storytelling, he also has a nuanced, humanistic sense of humor that suits this subject really well. The Short Game may not be a gritty look at the often scary, pressure-filled, borderline-abusive world of child athletics, but that's a documentary for someone else to make. For now, I'll gladly settle for a crowd-pleaser.
So how did you feel about The Short Game? Let's talk about this thing in the comments below!
Possible Discussion Topics
1. So wait, was Anna Kournikova too busy to make an appearance?
2. A big recurring element was how these prodigies would arise from untalented parents. Or, as Amari's dad put it, "how does a C person make an A person?" Well, how?
3. The segment where Zama and his family visited an apartheid museum: did you feel things? Be honest.
4. Did you believe the kids' (and their parents') claims that the kids were willingly giving up their childhoods?
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