It’s hard to think of an image from this year’s SXSW film festival more aggressively satisfying than that of 20-year-old Lily Hevesh toppling a towering tier of stacked dominos, the lovely crash echoing throughout every quiet pocket of the room. Jeremy Workman’s wholly endearing documentary about the world famous domino artist, Lily Topples the World, is both an undeniable crowdpleaser and an important spotlight cast on an underrepresented and entirely deserving protagonist. It’s just the kind of unbridled optimism one might seek out after a year marred by despair, delivered by a startling bright ball of sunshine.
Adopted by her parents when she was one, Lily was abandoned at the doorstep of an orphanage without any identification of any kind. While growing up in her quaint New Hampshire home, she was quite literally the only Asian American she ever saw at school, or on the sidewalk, or in the grocery store checkout line. For a long time, nobody saw her face either. When she started her YouTube channel around age nine or 10, under the avatar Hevesh5, she displayed superior artistry, creating entertaining and educational domino building videos with the finesse of a natural born showman and a surprisingly strong director’s eye, but she never actually showed herself in the videos. Sure, her hands would be there setting up and knocking down bridges and staircases and the like, but nobody even knew it was a girl in there schooling everybody in those videos until 2012, the first time a group of domino builders ever actually met up together in person.
In the footage later released from the event, people questioned who the lone female onscreen was, and after enough people showed interest, Lily decided to devote a video to her unmasking. As of now, she’s not just the only girl who happens to be a professional domino artist, she’s also seemingly the only professional Asian player. She’s considered the best at what she does in the entire world.
Lily has had every reason to feel intimidated, to blame her circumstances for her lack of progress, to bask in being the outsider. And yet, this movie radiates joy. Lily refuses to be bogged down by other people’s expectations. She finds happiness in her failures, seeing her mistakes not as setbacks, but as opportunities to grow. The YouTube channel she runs occasionally showcases some nasty comments from trolls, as all social media platforms are known to attract the jealous and the vulturous, but Lily’s too busy being a businesswoman to notice. With the help of her 3.1 million subscribers, the documentary shows how Lily hits the convention circuit at events like the 2019 New York fair, where she meets with companies to discuss creating her own line of branded toppling dominos.
The documentary’s executive producer knows a thing or two about overcoming extenuating circumstances in order to rise to the top. Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran took herself off of social media after months of harassment from so-called ‘fans’ of the franchise. Tran was the first lead female character of color in the series, and had been chastised by rabid followers for her performance, her looks, and her Asian ethnicity. Many hounded her with racist comments until she deleted all of her social media completely. The fact that both of these young women have been publicly persecuted for their success by white men who use hateful rhetoric should not be lost on anyone, especially in the wake of the horrific events in Georgia this week.
This is a story of unlikely triumph. An uplifting coming-of-age tale about embracing whatever it is that makes you different from others, an example of how people can flourish past their inhibitions to thrive and shine when their talents are met with a nurturing environment. It’s a much needed serotonin boost that will have you grinning from start to finish.
As a portrait of a dancer moving about her chosen stage, Lily Topples the World is at its best when it’s cloaked in transient stillness. Lily furrows her brow, eyes her delicate creations with meticulous intensity. Stepping between sensitive sky high constructions with the dexterity of a prima ballerina gliding out of a pirouette, she gazes over the tiny world she has risen from the earth. Steering her coworkers to place each brick at just the right angle in order to create the spectacle she desires, she is a ringleader running a hat trick in a medicine show. A manager of talent just as much as she is an artist. An admitted perfectionist at everything she attempts, her persistent, determined nature sparking well with her expertise in engineering, all matched with unabashed curiosity — her YouTube channel demonstrates she might even be a better director than her documentarian. But watching Lily build and teach and conquer every obstacle in her path with glee through Workman’s observant eye is pretty stellar, too.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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