13 is a hard age. No longer a child, not yet an adult, and nowhere to channel that teen angst, which is even rawer for angry delinquent Sammy Ko (Miya Cech), who is struggling to overcome the grief over losing her mother. So Sammy breaks things at her school and tattoos little x’s on her thigh with a makeshift tattoo pen, until her father (Leonardo Nam) gets fed up and threatens her with military camp. If she can make it through one business class over the summer, then she doesn’t have to go.
Written and directed by Kate Tsang (Steven Universe) in her feature directorial debut, Marvelous and the Black Hole is sweet but slight coming-of-age dramedy about a troubled teen finding the magic in, well, magic. Tsang’s background in the animation world gives the film a bit of zest that elevates it from its standard coming-of-age trappings, but apart from a kooky performance from Rhea Perlman, Marvelous and the Black Hole is an inoffensive but adequate odd-couple comedy.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Marvelous and the Black Hole, if anything, heralds the arrival of a promising new director with a talent for tapping into the hard emotions of an unhappy teen and making something magical out of it. Sammy’s memories of her mother exist in grainy black-and-white films that play out in her mind, of the old Chinese folktales that her mother used to tell her when she was young. Sammy’s rage can be seen in the little pencil scribbles that dance across the screen, creating morbid little drawings that turn into hurricanes of black graphite. Her inner thoughts are written across her thighs in the black little x’s, one of which begins bleeding one day when a particularly bad day at her summer class sends her to the bathroom where she angrily sketches out her feelings on her body.
It’s there where she meets Perlman’s eccentric magician Margot, who notes with concern that Sammy is bleeding before observing that the angry little teen reminds her of her when she was young. Without warning, Margot takes Sammy by the hand to return with her to the kindergarten class where she’s performing a magic show, forcing Sammy to act as her assistant. At first irritated to be dragged into a silly magic show, Sammy’s eyes widen when she sees Margot carry out her act, bringing a rabbit out of a hat and making paper flowers bloom all over her body. Tsang’s sly use of stop-motion to show the flowers slowly open creates a sense of awe, as if magic really does exist for just one moment.
“Magic is about making your audience feel something,” Margot instructs Sammy after the teen pleads with her to be taught magic. “Ideally it’s wonder, but I’ll settle for raw rage in your case.”
The pair strike up an odd couple — the older teaching the younger how to make sense of her grief and turn it into magic, the younger getting the older to open up her quirky exterior a little and embrace some of her long-held trauma. It’s a sweet dynamic that we’ve seen many times before, but Perlman and Cech sell it, with Cech more than holding her own against the acting veteran, convincingly playing surly and shy in all their shades.
But the magic act that the two dream up put Sammy at odds with her father, who notices her frequent absences from class and is unhappy for her strange friendship with Margot and her equally kooky group of magician friends. Sammy’s unhappiness becomes tenfold, taking the form of the titular “black hole,” which is how she sees her anger, as if it will swallow her life up.
Marvelous and the Black Hole is a satisfying showcase from Tsang, who really draws from her animation background to show these moments of intense emotion from Sammy, but its broad strokes are a little…broad. The beats are a mostly predictable and standard for the coming-of-age story, but they’re pulled off competently, which is more than enough for a charming debut film.
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