Directed by Josh Greenbaum
If The Short Game is any indication, it’s hard work being a child in the 21st century. The hook of this new documentary is fairly high-concept—it follows eight of over 1500 golfers age 7 or 8 competing at a world championship in Pinehurst, North Carolina—and yet, as slick as it is, it’s hard not to feel both a bit depressed at the almost comically driven subjects and wistful for a relaxed childhood not centered around detailed workouts or tireless practicing.
Director Josh Greenbaum, from pretty much the first shot, teases a deeper exploration of modern childhood around the world while creating the most stylish, flashy package as possible. The pacing is, frankly, so quick that a longer film would be preferable. One hundred minutes just isn’t enough to get to know these kids outside of their surface-level defining traits. One is Anna Kournikova’s younger brother; another is a high-functioning autistic boy living in the Philippines; another is from South Africa, hoping to improve on his standing from last year’s championship. Once the actual 3-day championship begins, The Short Game turns into a feature version of any number of competition reality shows, including narration from an unseen announcer, overly dramatic music (composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, when the soundtrack isn’t using a handful of familiar pop songs), and fast-paced edits.
The Short Game is all shiny veneer, rarely examining its subjects too deeply. Think of Amari, the odds-on favorite for the Girls 8 and Under competition. She’s as driven as any of the other kids in the film—including, presumably, the countless kids who don’t merit any serious focus. In part, though, Amari is determined because her father, Andre, is unable to check his emotions at the door. All of the parents in the film, one presumes, mean well. (The mother of Augustin, a young French boy, seems equally as pushy as Andre, reducing him to tears after a bout of poor play.) But he can’t hide how angry he is when his daughter misses a birdie shot or chips a shot into the trees, so neither can she. These two are perhaps the harshest example of the damaging parent-child relationship that’s so typical in modern culture: the parent who can barely hide how he or she is making the child pursue his or her own dreams, not the child’s. Amari is very good at golf, of course, but it seems like she’s more concerned with making her temperamental father—who seems legitimately confused about why she lets her emotions get the best of her, even though she’s 8 and that’s how kids typically operate—happy, not with winning.
This may seem like armchair child psychology, but then, The Short Game isn’t offering much more than that. Each parent-child combination—although many of the kids are in a two-parent family, most of them are only accompanied by one on their trip to Pinehurst—represents a different facet of the modern child, from the mild braggart to the easily frazzled to the meek. Their lives are complex, but this movie is not. Each of these kids could be the focus of their own documentary. What must it be like to excel at sports and be autistic? What is it like to practice golf without actual equipment, but by creating a makeshift course in your father’s office, replete with a golf ball made of balled-up Scotch tape? And what’s it like trying to win a golf tournament despite being smaller and less strong than your competitors? Greenbaum poses these questions simply by making Jed Dy, Kuang Yang, and Sky Sudbury major parts of The Short Game, but as soon as we’ve met them, it’s time to wrap up their stories. Perhaps ideally, Greenbaum could follow the structure of something like the Up series of documentaries, constantly revisiting this octet to see if they’ve followed their passion for golfing, or if life has pushed them in another direction. In all likelihood, though, the next time we may hear of any of these kids is if they end up following that dream and finding their way onto the highlight reel on SportsCenter.
One of the more striking elements of The Short Game is the adult players who are mentioned, seen, or heard from. (A few, such as Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam, appear in talking head interviews.) If there is an idol the kids appear to share, it’s Tiger Woods, also seen as a youngster on a 1970s talk show displaying his prowess at a young age. Woods is, of course, an insanely talented athlete even now; however, it’s a bit strange watching kids speak fondly of a man who’s as well-known for his personal indiscretions as for his professional triumphs. And The Short Game is not terribly intrigued by exploring what this means, whether these kids even know of the Tiger Woods controversy of the last few years. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they do, but don’t care. For all its surface-level entertainment, The Short Game not only doesn’t go deep, it doesn’t even seem to be interested in figuring out what makes these kids tick.
— Josh Spiegel