You didn’t think you needed a movie about competitive table tennis until Top Spin proved you wrong. Directors Sara Newens and Mina T. Son have taken a recreational pastime previously banished to basements and turned it into compelling sports drama. Exhilarating, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking, Top Spin is an entertaining look at what it takes to be champion. Even if the champion isn’t old enough to drive.
“Table tennis is a lot like combining martial arts, boxing, and chess.”
It’s a tribute to the creators of Top Spin that this ludicrous claim, made in the film’s opening moments, seems completely feasible by the final credits. We watch the punishing quest of three young champions as they battle for the right to represent North America in the 2012 Olympics. As the film progresses and we come to learn about these kids, not only do we feel each of their victories and defeats more profoundly, we come to understand why they win or lose. Watching athletes in their physical prime strive for heights beyond their mental maturity is always fascinating and sometimes devastating. To paraphrase an old saying, “Crushing forehands are wasted on the young.”
The youngest competitor is Lily. She’s 15 years-old, loves having fashion shows with her girlfriends, and probably doesn’t practice as hard as she should. Her talent is undeniable, as is her psychological fragility. Whether Lily can overcome her nerves and impulsiveness to win a championship becomes the most compelling storyline of Top Spin. It’s a perfect example of how directors Newens and Son take great care introducing us to this world; laying out each character’s weakness and then building to the climactic moment when they must either overcome that weakness or face certain defeat. It’s solid cinematic storytelling that transcends every tired sports cliché.
Next, we have 16 year-old Ariel. Not only are Ariel and Lily fierce rivals, they are dear friends. It’s a complex relationship that neither girl is yet equipped to understand. As players, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Unlike the flighty Lily, Ariel is driven to perfection in everything she does. She leaves school every day at noon so she can train for hours with her father, who just happens to be her coach. The expectations weigh heavily on her narrow shoulders, even as she mows through her hapless opponents. In Ariel, the filmmakers have found their posterchild for youthful obsession. Can this all-consuming thirst for accomplishment impede a young person’s development? Will Ariel crack under the pressure when she finally reaches the spotlight?
The same question can be asked of 17 year-old Michael. He’s been playing ping pong since he could hold a paddle, quite literally hitting balls as an infant. While both he and Ariel have pushed themselves to be champions, Michael does not avoid the allure of outside diversions. He wants to attend college, and dedicates huge chunks of time to study for his upcoming SAT. More damaging, perhaps, is his need for adoration and attention. He never turns down an interview, covets the Wheaties box, and spends his evenings cavorting at the trendy Spin Club. In other words, Michael is eager to be an average kid. When he absconds to China for some training with the world’s best table tennis players, his questionable dedication comes into glaring relief. After Michael endures a grueling workout, your heart sinks when a legendary Chinese coach describes his talent as “fairly good.” When the line between champion and also-ran is razor thin, can Michael afford to have so many competing interests?
We’ve seen these questions and themes tackled before in sports movies, but rarely in such a naturalistic way. The filmmakers don’t really have an axe to grind here; they’re content to introduce the players and then follow them to their final destination. Refreshingly, they don’t judge the parents, either. Even Ariel’s father, who quit his job to help Ariel realize her dream, comes across as surprisingly sympathetic. There is no ugliness or judgment you might find on a reality television show. The filmmakers respect these kids and the hard work it takes to succeed in such an unforgiving sport.
While it’s tempting to liken Top Spin to the basketball opus, Hoop Dreams, the comparison is not an apt one. These kids are going to be fine, regardless of their athletic pursuits. Table tennis is not a means of escape, but a route to personal success. The lower stakes do little to diminish the drama of their final battles, however. We get lost in their youthful exuberance; the unflagging belief that anything is possible if you just work hard enough. The lack of jaded cynicism is almost intoxicating. These kids know exactly what it takes to be a champion. Watching them decide if the reward is worth the price elevates ping pong to almost Shakespearean heights.