Finding the most entertaining angle on one of the world’s dullest sports, “The Short Game” has built-in word-of-mouth that should help it break out of the docu sandtrap and roll down the fairway. The eight golf champs featured in this “Spellbound”-style saga are among the most competitive on the planet. They practice constantly, run circles around Tiger Woods’ records, have won hundreds of trophies — and on the rare occasion when they miss a shot, you just want to pinch their cheeks. That’s because they’re all 7 years old and set to compete in the World Championships of Junior Golf.
Every time the mini golfers in Josh Greenbaum’s feature debut open their mouths, these inadvertently hilarious kids say the darndest things, reminding us they’re too young to remember life before the invention of Wii Sports — and too focused on the real game to have fun doing much of anything else. But these eight kids aren’t just prodigies; they’re entertaining characters in their own right, some of whom just might wind up on the pro tour in a decade or so.
Allan Kournikova, kid brother of tennis star Anna, collects trophies the way children before him hoarded baseball cards and Beanie Babies. “They’re just so shiny,” he beams. “And they’re good art.” As he fumbles with “the ancient medal” his big sis won in the Olympics, Allan doesn’t seem very coordinated. But on the green, he can control the ball better than anyone his age, returning this year to defend his Junior Golf title. Personality-wise, he’s the right subject to start with, spouting weird words to live by like a young Donald Trump.
If Kournikova sounds spoiled, just wait’ll you meet Augustin Valery, the androgynous-looking grandson of French poet Paul Valery. Dressed like a character out of a Wes Anderson movie, the kid could probably stand to experience a crushing defeat to toughen up his character. Other contestants come from as far as South Africa and the Philippines, as well as from less privileged corners of America, and they represent a good balance of girls and boys. Among them, Amari Avery’s middle-class black-and-Asian background feeds her dreams of following in Woods’ footsteps (and earns her the nickname “Tigress”).
Part of the kids’ charm comes from the unfiltered way they seem to speak their minds oncamera, though it’s clear Greenbaum is giving his young subjects a fair amount of direction, as are their parents — or “daddy caddies,” as the most vocal among them are called. The choicest moments feel the most unrehearsed, as when overachiever Alexa Pano compares a huge, triangle-shaped award to a slice of pineapple and sausage pizza — or, better, when she and Kournikova blush while talking about their budding relationship. Less convincing, though effective all the same, are moments in which the crew’s presence clearly influences the result, like the scene where Alexa practices through a heavy rainstorm, cameras rolling the whole time.
With 14 different lensers credited, the film clearly involved formidable logistics in order to track these kids in the months leading up to the competition at the tony Pinehurst, N.C., Country Club — a task that meant dispatching crews to five different countries, not counting wherever they shot supplemental interviews with old pros like Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. That enormous effort pays off, yielding more than enough footage to capture the kids’ adorable personalities before they all converge on Pinehurst as rivals.
The final stretch is standard sports-movie stuff, though editor Billy McMillin makes it easy to follow the progress (assisted by voiceover from an eager announcer) while maintaining tension, thanks to how cleanly the pic establishes each of the kids’ personal stakes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Short Game” is discovering how contagious their commitment is. And with a sport like golf, those that don’t win needn’t worry. They have another 70 or so years to keep trying.