Midway through Jeremy Workman’s SXSW-premiering documentary Lily Topples the World, there’s a scene of premature topplation unlikely to be supplanted among the year’s most tragic cinematic moments.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve warned you to expect it, because in the world of professional domino toppling, the line between a meticulously constructed piece of art waiting for a perfectly timed nudge and that same piece of art rushing toward its inevitable doom ahead of schedule can be razor-thin. And Workman, using 20-something YouTuber Lily Hevesh as an avatar, has capably established both artistry and stakes. Even despite that dominos tragedy, there’s a smile that takes up early residency on a viewer’s face while watching Lily Topples the World, and that smile isn’t toppled until 90 minutes have passed.
The subject shines, even when the storytelling gets clunky.
The documentary begins with the freshman class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute learning that among their ranks is a “famous domino artist.” That would be Lily, whose YouTube following currently tops 3 million. Adopted from a Chinese orphanage when she was only a year old, Lily started her YouTube channel when she was nine or 10, and dominos offered a community of virtual friends. But RPI is the first place she’s found a peer group of similarly nerdy enthusiasts. She laughs. She cries. She runs happily down the streets of Troy. That’s roughly the first five minutes of Lily Topples the World, actress Kelly Marie Tran’s first producing foray, and it would make a wholly uplifting short, but it turns out that Lily’s aspirations go far beyond just “making friends.”
Even though she does regular interviews throughout the documentary, Lily isn’t always the best seller of her brand when she’s sitting under hot lights explaining it. She tends to speak in soundbites.
When she’s actually doing her thing, though, she’s remarkable. Workman does nothing so well as just letting his camera focus on Lily at work — whether she’s in solo contemplation of block placement or graceful negotiation of the precarious stretches of dominos, bending and twisting with a dancer’s grace and a born showman’s gift for tension-building. If all she did in the documentary was build domino art featuring tens of thousands of components, you’d come away with ample respect for Lily Hevesh.
But she’s much more than that. She’s a businesswoman, attempting to pitch her own line of toppling dominos. She’s a one-woman industry, traveling the world working with other topplers to build ambitious projects for the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Katy Perry. She’s a YouTube personality, attending conventions where her mere presence makes small children burst into excited tears. Having seen evidence of Lily’s insecure beginnings, her glow when she’s among fans is contagious.
Lily is also a filmmaker at heart. You can watch her YouTube videos on her Hevesh5 channel and you already know that her sense of editing, framing and camera movement are impeccable. When she takes over the visual scheme of an installation she’s doing for Lego, you see how real and concrete her vision is.
It’s a subject of some disappointment that Lily is a better director of her work than Workman is. The filmmaker doesn’t always capture what’s most impressive about these structures Lily has designed and executed. And he definitely doesn’t understand that domino toppling is in no small part an auditory experience, slathering Lily’s biggest stunts in classical music, as if proximity to an “established” art form will confer bona fides onto dominos. Watch Lily’s own YouTube video of her 32,000-domino spiral created during quarantine to see a better document of her skills than anything in the movie.
Workman seems generally unsure that audiences will get “dominos” as a thing, hence the structuring of the entire documentary around the traditional validation of Lily trying to sell her line of blocks. Workman likes things to be quantifiable, hence introducing key figures with their subscriber counts, a tactic that conveys how big Lily is in the YouTube space and how hard she’s working to uplift people with less visibility.
For no reason at all, Workman uses a curator from the Museum of the Moving Image to try to explain “online video” to audiences, a one-off pedantic appearance that’s much less effective than the explanation one of Lily’s friends gives for her own personal dedication to YouTube. When he isn’t over-explaining things, Workman is able to use Lily to illustrate the artistic possibilities of YouTube stardom — a kind of stardom full of positivity, without anybody analyzing QAnon or shouting racist slurs while playing video games. It’s an uplifting take on how YouTube can be a storytelling community without gatekeepers, one in which a tremendous amount of potential autonomy is available to female creators.
Lily Topples the World becomes more of a professional proving ground than a personal portrait, and I guess that’s the way either Workman or Lily or both wanted it. There are glimpses of how Lily’s worldview has been shaped by her adoption and by growing up in a predominantly white part of New Hampshire. You see it in interactions with other adoptees, other kids whose lives were shaped by China’s One Child policy. There’s a richer documentary to be made, one you might crave even more after 90 minutes of being inspired and impressed by Lily Hevesh.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Director/Producer/Editor: Jeremy Workman
Producer: Robert Lyons
Executive Producers: Kelly Marie Tran, Allen Altman, Cathie Altman, Jane Lee, Maine Black, Scott Black
Cinematographer: Jeremy Workman, Michael Lisnet