By John Strege
The toxic mix of youth sports and overzealous parents threatened to hijack the new golf documentary, "The Short Game," but it was rescued, mercifully and ultimately entertainingly, by the kids themselves.
"The Short Game," which opens in select theaters in 10 cities on Sept. 20 and counts Justin Timberlake among its executive producers, chronicles eight precocious 7 and 8-year olds as they prepared for and played in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championships in Pinehurst, N.C.
A second-grader pulling a tire as part of a daily workout regimen and a father who unabashedly declares that his goal is "to raise the next greatest golfer the world has ever seen" are more disturbing aspects of the film, suggesting as they do the worst about what we commonly call Little League parents.
But Zama the Dreamer, a black South African boy whose unbridled joy and infectious smile reach through the screen and tug at the heart; the shy, autistic and talented Filipino with the endearing smile; and the mighty sprite from Texas who is required by her relative lack of strength to use a split grip, they rescue the film from the parental abyss.
That it touches a gamut of emotions is why "The Short Game" works so well. A documentary that whitewashes the dark side of a subject would be propaganda. "The Short Game" does not pull punches; what its cameras saw is what you get.
"We tried to be really honest and not to sugarcoat anything," producer Rafael Marmor said. "Obviously there are more difficult scenes, but what we really saw was the passion that these kids have. Their stories are incredibly inspiring and all very different. Even when there were more difficult things while filming, by the end of our process, a lot of those things are put into context and you kind of understand where they're coming from, troubling as they may seem. There's redemption. They've grown or progressed."
The second-grader is Allan Kournikova, half brother of former tennis professional Anna Kournikova. By the end of the film, it seems as though he embraces the strength training and that it and his fixation on nutrition, while odd for a 7-year-old, are a price he's willing to pay to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming No. 1 in the world. He's also quite charming and every bit a little boy away from golf.
The case of the overbearing father, Andre Avery, attempting to produce "the next greatest golfer who ever lived," is more complicated. His daughter, Amari, shares a birthday with Tiger Woods and like Woods is the offspring of an African-American father and an Asian mother. Hence her nickname, Tigress.
Andre caddies for Amari and what they have in common is a temper, one that does not help her game nor presumably their relationship. Yet there is no absence of love, and Andre, through tears, eventually acknowledges that golf is the only means by which she can go to college, a healthier goal than attempting to raise a female Tiger Woods.
They are last seen at the trophy presentations. Across the screen flash the words, "Amari has been seeing a sports psychologist about her emotions." Then after a pause, this addendum: "...Andre has too."
The eight kids also include a Chinese boy who discovered golf through a DVD featuring Roger Maltbie speaking Chinese and a French boy whose great grandfather was the renowned French author and philosopher Paul Valery. Each of the eight is interesting and eminently likable, perhaps none to the same degree as Zama the dreamer, however.
Zama Nxasana went from finishing 43rd in 2011 to finishing 18th in 2012 and was declared the most improved player, a distinction that produced a reaction that would have been no more exuberant had he just won the Masters.
"He exploded on the screen," Marmor said. "As soon as we met him we all fell in love with him. He has a heart of gold, as do his parents. We couldn't film them enough. The joy was coming through the camera."