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Sammy (Miya Cech) thinks she’s a badass. She sneaks out of the house, smokes cigarettes, and just got expelled from her high school for an elaborate prank that ended with her getting a black eye. (She doesn’t mind. It makes her look tough.) Sammy’s widower dad Angus (Leonardo Nam) is fed up with her defiance, and threatens to send her to a military camp for troubled teens if she doesn’t start taking her obligations more seriously. In short, Sammy is a rage-filled adolescent. And like many rage-filled adolescents, her anger is but a flimsy lid covering a deep well of sadness.
And besides, how hardened can a teenager be if she’s wowed by magic tricks? That’s the bet that Margot (Rhea Perlman), a semi-successful kids’ birthday party magician, takes when she catches Sammy smoking in the girls’ room at the community college where Sammy’s dad is forcing her to take a business class. (Sammy’s “Ghost World”-esque business idea? A door-to-door euthanasia service.) Margot sees something in this wounded, rebellious child, and gives Sammy exactly what she needs: A non-judgmental space where she can process her anger about her mother’s death and learn how to make playing cards disappear.
“Marvelous and the Black Hole” is about grief, yes. Sammy’s family dynamics, including her father’s eagerness to move on and her sister Patricia’s (Kannon) escapist obsession with an online role playing game called “Kingdom Cog,” do factor into the story. It’s also about cultural identity: Sammy falls asleep at night listening to a tape recording of her late mother reading a Chinese fairy tale, and a section in a magic book about “Oriental mysteries” makes her question whether she belongs in Margot’s world at all. But most of all, “Marvelous and the Black Hole” is a film about how creativity can carry us through the toughest of times.
The film unfolds at a gentle pace, full of colorful, non-threatening characters who treat Sammy with the kindness she needs but can’t appreciate right now. Keith Powell, a.k.a. Toofer from “30 Rock,” co-stars as Sammy’s exasperated community college professor, alongside Paulina Lule as Sammy and Patricia’s gracious soon-to-be-stepmom. The collection of eccentrics that make up Marvelous Margot’s secret society of conjurers is similarly wholesome: In an initiation ritual full of smoke and bombast, Margot asks Sammy if she brought a “worthy snack” to their magical salon. (That being said, one of them served two months in prison for cheating at a casino, which Sammy thinks is awesome.)
The sunny YA tone and mild patience of “Marvelous and the Black Hole” is accompanied by a sense of childlike imagination, which manifests in sequences like one where Sammy imagines Margot’s pet rabbit growing to enormous size in the style of a black-and-white ‘50s sci-fi movie. Over the course of the film, Margot gently teases out the old Sammy, calling her bluff by offering her wine—Sammy spits it out, because she’s more innocent than she lets on—and letting the girl give her a tiny stick-and-poke tattoo. Margot has hidden pain of her own, which Sammy doesn’t find out until late in the story. But that realization plays a pivotal role in Sammy’s journey.
Everyone is hurting in “Marvelous and the Black Hole.” But the movie keeps its emotional focus on Sammy, which says a lot about who it was made for: Angry, confused teenagers like the main character, who can relate to the image of a black hole scratching out their faces when they’re overwhelmed with frustration. This is obviously a low-budget effort, and possibly a personal one for writer/director Kate Tsang. That heartfelt element translates into the benevolence of the adults in this film—Perlman is especially big-hearted, no surprise there—not to mention Tsang’s obvious affection for her troubled protagonist. Together, they imbue “Marvelous and the Black Hole” with enough warmth to overcome its practical limitations. Talk about a sleight of hand trick.
Now playing in theaters.