Review: Top Spin (Newens & Son, 2014) – CAAMFest 2015

Still from the movie Top Spin

In the sub-genre of Sports Documentaries there is a sub-sub-genre of Sports Documentaries Featuring Young Athletes (e.g. The Short Game). Maybe the allure of this sub-(sub-)genre is that it provides all the entertainment of a sporting event distilled into pure drama, showing only the tensest moments of competition and providing just enough sports-related commentary to explain the tension but not enough to bore a lay person (like me). At any rate, I tend to seek out these movies because, while none have ever bowled me over, they have at least always provided reliable, consistent enjoyment. Top Spin fits that mold perfectly.

This feature-length documentary, which evolved from an earlier short, follows a handful of table tennis players as they pursue their dream of representing the United States at the 2012 London Olympics. In Top Spin we get a tantalizing peek into the lives of Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, and Michael Landers–three high schoolers with very distinct personalities–preparing for one of the most important events of their lives, the Olympic trials, while also juggling the academic and social duties of regular teenagers.

If you’ve ever known someone who’s known someone who’s been an Olympian, you’ve always been curious about just what it takes for a person to be ordinary enough to be in your circle of acquaintanceship but extraordinary enough to be one of the best in the world at what they do. (Incidentally, Ariel and Lily practice at the same club at which one of my husband’s co-workers is a member.) Add to that the fact that they aren’t even adults (do you remember what you were like in high school?), and you really begin to wonder. It turns out that people who have an incredible skill are (predictably) just like us; it’s their strain of intensity, and the different forms it takes in different individuals, that makes them–and this documentary–so fascinating.

And, if you were ever under the impression that ping pong isn’t a real sport, this film will set you straight.

Top Spin isn’t the type of documentary to change your mind about anything or teach you something you didn’t know, but it’s still good, solid entertainment–on the more wholesome side of the reality media spectrum. For that, filmmakers Sara Newens and Mina T. Son likely won’t win any awards (update: just kidding, it won the CAAMFest documentary audience award!), but their film will probably get picked up by the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO. So, if you missed this movie at CAAMFest, don’t fret! It’s probably coming to a streaming service near you.