Documentaries that manage to introduce a new audience to something niche and relatively uncommon (while retaining entertainment value and artistic excellence) instantly earn my admiration. From director Jeremy Workman and executive producer Kelly Marie Tran, Lily Topples the World shows that great stories do not necessarily rely on the viewer’s familiarity with the subject matter. Rather, the heart of a story are the people telling it and living it. There is a human connection to be made with any narrative that is delivered with enough care and passion. While dominoes might be the driving factor of the story, both in a physical and metaphorical sense, it is the soulful humanity of Lily Hevesh and her friends and family that gives this documentary its substance.
There is a radiant warmth to Lily Topples the World that, to put it bluntly, made me feel really damn good. It was a feeling of comfort and contentment. Lily Hevesh is a young domino artist barely 20 years of age, with more than 3 million subscribers on YouTube, who is regarded as the best of the best in her sphere. She also happens to be the only female at this level of the domino specialty. Additionally, her racial identity is another element that makes her unique among her peers. As a very young girl, Lily was adopted from an orphanage in China and was brought up in New Hampshire. Although she was raised fully entrenched in American culture, she consistently found herself as one of the very few people of Asian descent in her predominantly white area and school district. This extended into her career as a domino artist, where she has been mostly surrounded by white people. But, she found a way to make not just a name for herself, but to become the household name in her industry.
It is unfortunate that we even have to take this into consideration, but it took a certain degree of courage for Hevesh to go against the grain so confidently. This is not to say that she faced direct discrimination from others in the domino landscape — from what we see in the documentary, she is welcomed with open arms and is genuinely loved by those she encounters. (Of course, there are occasional internet trolls she deals with, which is unacceptable but also unsurprising in the world we live in). But, simply having the self-assurance to take charge and become a prominent leader as a woman of color in a field of white men is a beautiful thing. She may inspire other women and people of color to follow in her footsteps.
If this was a narrative feature, Lily Hevesh would be a fan-favorite character. She has a delightful screen presence and charisma that is quiet and gentle, yet strong, steady, and convincing. Hevesh knows who she is and what she can do, but she is also humble and does not flaunt her status as the greatest domino artist in the world — which, to be clear, she would have every right to do. The fact the Hevesh is not a fictional character, but a real person we are seeing in front of our eyes in a documentary, is a reassuring concept. The best of heroes in storytelling should motivate and embolden audience members to be the best version of themselves, and when that hero is someone who exists in the real world, the encouragement is even stronger.
In addition to his directorial duties, Jeremy Workman also contributes to the film as Editor and Director of Photography (along with Michael Lisnet in the latter role). The charming story of Hevesh is not the only thing that makes Lily Topples the World so fantastic, the technical filmmaking is impressive as well. The art of dominoes is captured with a brilliant range of physical perspectives. The camera angles are selected with such care and respect for the motion, precision, and even chaos of dominoes. The montages flow with a mesmerizing cadence that shows an appreciation for the delicacy of the virtuosity. Based on his reverence for the narrative and technical balance in telling the story of Hevesh, it is obvious that Workman holds the subject matter of his documentary in very high regard.
Let the record show that my personal knowledge of domino art is practically nonexistent, but this craftmanship’s pure energy that we get a glimpse of in this documentary is sensational. I walked away from this film better acquainted with the culture of dominoes, and also with a desire to engage in more examination of this art. That is one of the best compliments I can give to Lily Topples the World. But truly, the best compliment I can give it, as I said earlier: This documentary made me feel really damn good. It is a story about lovely, talented people who use that love and talent with grace and dignity.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Lily Topples The World website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.