Summer Moviethon 2016: Top Spin

June 20: #10, Top Spin

What if I told you that table tennis players are legitimate athletes?

I'm a sucker for documentaries about niche subcultures, so 80 minutes in the world of competitive table tennis was an easy sell for me. Top Spin follows three teenage table tennis standouts as they attempt to qualify for the Olympics. Along the way, the documentary shows the kids sacrificing their chances at normal high school lives and their parents going the extra while to enable their dreams.

If that sounds formulaic to you, well...it is. In fact, one of the few disappointments about Top Spin is that it is so approachable that it's almost homogenous. You don't really need to watch this if you've already seen similar documentaries chronicling the journeys of young athletes. Furthermore, while the kids are likeable enough, none of them are particularly charismatic or even memorable.

So, why does Top Spin work as well as it does? Well, in part because the formula it uses is a successful one. That's why it's used, after all. Furthermore, the novelty of the sport is enough to keep your interest while you develop an attachment to 16-year-old Ariel Hsing, 15-year-old Lily Zhang, and 17-year-old Michael Landers. By then, you're genuinely nervous about how they'll do in their quests to play in the Olympics.

Hsing making good use of the roughly .0003 seconds she has before the ball comes back to her.

Top Spin has a couple of interesting points to make, even if it doesn't realize it. At one point, Ariel makes a great statement about the loneliness of individual athletes. What sets apart Ariel's quote from the others you've heard is that she even yearns for the chances to be sad with teammates after a loss. Giving up your high school years to be an elite athlete is tough enough, but without teammates who are making the same sacrifices, it must be very lonely, indeed.

Another thing I thought about is the importance of the legitimacy that the Olympics provide. Even if you know nothing of table tennis, you understand the accomplishment of playing in the Olympics. The platform provides a common language with which to communicate the greatness of athletes in unfamiliar sports. It also provides an audience every four years that otherwise wouldn't exist.

So no, there's nothing really new here, but I was fully invested in seeing how the kids' efforts would pay off as the film rolled toward its end. It's hard for me to say the documentary doesn't succeed when I found myself rooting for the players like I did.

Grade: B

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