Monday, June 28, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.08: Marvelous and the Black Hole

The good news about taking forever to do write-ups: Sometimes you see a movie about kids, get a chance to see your nieces who are roughly the same age, and it kind of erases any doubts one might have about how well the filmmakers get tweens. Not that I had many watching this movie - it rings pretty true - but kids are tricky, especially with adults who have seen so many movies about them wanting to put self-referential words in the mouths of people who might be smart enough for it but don't necessarily think along those lines yet.

A little time rolling it over made me inclined to boost it a quarter-star up to the full three. It's kind of lightweight in a few ways, but it's not overextended and probably plays very well to kids the same age as its characters. Even during an in-person film festival, you don't really get a sense of how a young audience reacts to a movie like this, and it's something I'd be curious to see.

Marvelous and the Black Hole

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

I wonder if a movie like Marvelous and the Black Hole goes a little further now than it did five or ten years ago, with all manner of streaming services out there looking for material in bulk and not needing to be particularly concerned about balancing demographics in a limited number of slots (to be a bit euphemistic). Now, it's got a chance to be seen outside the festival circuit, and even if it's the sort of movie which, ten years later, is described as either good experience or an accomplishment that can't be taken away from someone, it's at least got a bit of a chance to find the person for whom it will hit just right.

Someone like Sammy Ko (Miya Cech), perhaps, a tween who is not doing very well at all with either the loss of her mother or the speed with which things are progressing between father Angus (Leonardo Nam) and his perfectly nice girlfriend Marianne (Paulina Lule). Acting out and verging on self-harm, she's forced to take a class at the community center, but ditches that as well, only to stumble on Margot Sullah (Rhea Perlman), a children's magician who could use an assistant for an hour, something which sparks Sammy's interest a bit more that she thought it would.

The film needs Margo to give Sammy something to do away from her family so that she eventually can see them a bit differently, but writer/director Kate Tsang makes a good choice in never straying too far from the Kos; not only is it just about impossible for a kid Sammy's age to actually be apart from her family for any particular length of time, but Sammy, older sister Patrician (Kannon), and Angus are an entertainingly imperfect group: As much as Sammy is the lead and someone that the audience can sympathize with, she's also kind of exhausting, and the way she and her sister reflexively cover for and snipe at each other certainly rings true, as does Leonardo Nam as the awkward, easy-to-like dad who is self-aware in ways that are funny but also show that he knows just how far in he is over his head. They're well-enough realized that the film can afford a sequence of the three out for an afternoon at the arcade that feels a bit like an unrelated detour before being revealed as Angus trying to make something go down easier and have it blow up because neither he nor Sammy can make the other move forward at their pace.

So where's Margot fit in? There are times when she kind of doesn't but it's not a particular problem because Rhea Perlman makes her eccentricity charming - there are aspects to Margot that would have read as "initially mean old spinster" just a couple decades back but which are shaded more sympathetically today - even if it takes a while to see how her somewhat broader performance plays into the character. Eventually, though, her parallels with Sammy become a bit more clear and sobering, and her purpose as a teacher becomes an intriguing inversion of magician and trickster tropes - she is teaching Sammy to deceive, yes, but also storytelling and how to recreate herself so that she can move forward even while that still hurts.

It's not always something Tsang and company are quite able to hit the right note on - kids Sammy's age are tricky in that even though they are emotionally complex, subtlety is not a big part of how they express themselves or necessarily the best way to deal with them, while Margot winds up in an odd spot that's neither quite central nor on the edges. Still, the often very funny details make up for a lot, especially when it involves the Kos' Chinese-American heritage, whether it be a way Sammy cuts down a cliche Angus spouts or how her initial interest in an old magic books section on "Oriental Magic" turns to annoyed disdain when it's just weird old racism. That does make it a little more clever when Sammy's imaginings of the stories her mother told her play out like the Shanghai-shot Chinese movies of the same era.

Those ways it all fits make the film come together a bit better than may initially seem to be the case, and I suspect that some folks will see themselves quite clearly in it. That won't be everyone, and the rest may just see a rough-but-earnest first feature, but given the age of the characters, that's not exactly a negative.

Also at eFilmCritic

2 comments:

AndrewJohnson said...

Marianne (Paulina Lule)?

Anonymous said...

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