Last year, I reviewed the documentary Touch the Wall about Olympian swimmers Kara Lynn Joyce and superstar Missy Franklin and really enjoyed it. I loved the journeys that were shown for both women as one tried to make a fourth Olympic team while the other tried to make her first. Swimming is a well recognized sport and those depicted in that film are familiar to a fairly wide audience all things considered. So when I began watching Sara Newens’ and Mina Son’s Top Spin about competitive table tennis/ping pong, I wasn’t sure what to expect as someone who doesn’t follow the sport. Hell, I didn’t even know that it was an Olympic sport until watching, However, the journeys of the films’ subjects, Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang and Michael Landers were every bit as compelling as those of Joyce and Franklin, perhaps even moreso.
Newens and Son seem to have unfettered access to three subjects of the film. Hsing, Zhang and Landers are all three American teenagers vying for their one true dream – representing the United Stats at the 2012 Olympic games in London. All three, despite their young age, are the best in country, but they have a grueling process in which they have to compete in order to make the team. They first must win tournaments to qualify for the US team, each team consisting of four men and women. But that’s not it…they have to compete against the Canadian National Team to secure one of three spots granted to North America.
Zhang and Hsing have cultivated quite a rivalry leading into the Olympic trials. Hsing has beaten her twice to claim the National Title, but even through this they are friends outside of the table. They root for one another because they can empathize with each others dreams. Both girls have very supportive families and both are allowed special schedules at school to allow for their training. Zhang only goes to school until noon each day so she can spend 5-6 hours/day training. Hsing‘s father devotes himself full-time to helping coach her and get her prepared for tournaments and the Olympics However, through all of this, the girls appear to maintain fairly normal lives, being with friends and doing things that most kids their age do. Zhang is far more successful in this arena, though. Hsing is shown hanging out with titans Warren Buffett (whom she calls Uncle Warren) and Bill Gates. She has a high profile, and rightfully so as the US Champion. You never get the creepy feeling about their parents and their motives like you do from something like Toddlers & Tiaras, where delusional parents clearly live vicariously through their young children. What we see here is a team effort on the part of the players and their parents. The win together, they lose together, they share in the joy and pain together.
Landers on the other hand is a different case. He is more of a rockstar than the two girls. He likes the limelight and is completely dedicated to his craft as a table tennis player. He doesn’t go to traditional school, but takes classes online at home to better accommodate his training regimen. We get glimpses that he still has somewhat of a social life, but not to the same degree as the two young ladies. He is being courted by major sponsors (he even gets his own Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cereal box) and his mother hints that if he makes the Olympics, that David Letterman is interested in bringing him on the show. He goes to the hip table tennis club Spin in New York City. All these things paint a different picture of Michael although he is no less a fierce competitor than Ariel or Lily. Michael is able to go to train in China where the best table tennis players in the world reside and who have taken 12 of 21 men’s gold medals,15 of 21 women’s gold medals both of the team gold medals awarded.
This film trumpets the rigors of competitive table tennis and the heart and dedication of these three talented youths and their support networks. It is a film that is careful not to judge these kids and their parents who devote everything they can to help them achieve their dream. While some might see this dedication as over the top or overbearing, it’s clear that these kids are keeping perspective on their durability in what is a tough sport as well as future goals outside of the sport. Landers, who dedicated his entire youth to table tennis, has an easy time letting go of the sport and embracing what life has to offer after his run at the Olympics. With Ariel and Lily, we will have to wait and see because they are both younger than Michael. I would love to see a follow up to this film picking up where this one left off because I believe that there is more story to tell here.
With a running time just under 80 minutes, this film packs a tremendous amount about these three kids in. I never felt like one got more screen time than the other and that there tales were fleshed out enough that we really got a sense of who they are so kudos to the Newens and Son for that. Ariel, Lilly and Michael‘s stories are worth telling and frankly this is a refreshing look at kids competing in the highest levels of sports with all the tension and drama you might expect from a fiction film. I experienced their highs and lows, triumphs and defeats right along with them and when a film can place me asthe viewer in those situations, you know it’s successful.
While many people don’t know much about table tennis outside of the table they have in the basement, this film demystifies the appeal of the sport and the many facets of the game. I really enjoyed this film and was completely taken by these three teens. I would certainly recommend this film of the vast wasteland of films in theaters now. Get there, people!
For those of you fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, this film has its world premiere today at the Laemmle Theaters and being distributed by First Run Features.