Sammy (Miya Cech) is angry. Her mother passed away within the last few years, and the 13-year-old channels her grief through acts of aggression at school (vandalism, and a fight that leaves her with a black eye) and home. She smokes and uses foul language. She shuts out her older sister Sue (Jae Suh Park) and father Angus (Leonardo Nam), whose desire to take the next step with his girlfriend Marianne (Paulina Lule) is a major sticking point for Sammy (at one point, she conveys that she doesn’t want her there by packing up Marianne’s toiletries). Sammy’s behavior becomes so unruly that Angus gives her an ultimatum: she can either be shipped off to a strict boarding school, or take a summer school class focused on determining career aspirations. A reluctant Sammy submits to the latter.
This introduction to Sammy in writer and director Kate Tsang’s “Marvelous and the Black Hole” is less than favorable. Teen characters can be expected to be unruly, but too much can test the viewers’ patience. But despite treading otherwise familiar territory, the film works thanks to a few great ingredients: Tsang’s clever direction and quirky screenplay, for which she drew elements of her own upbringing having parents who separated and her desire to see more Asian representation in a story like this, and Cech’s performance. And, of course, there’s the introduction of Rhea Perlman’s Margot, the unlikely figure who helps Sammy through this uncertain time in her life. After running into Margot outside her career class, Sammy decides to use her as the basis for her class project. Sammy’s teacher doesn’t really take her seriously though– mostly because Margot is a magician.
Having a literal magician serve as the person demonstrating to Sammy that beyond the hurt there is magic in the world may feel a little on the nose, but Perlman injects just the right combination of wisdom and charm into her performance for it to work. Whereas our introduction to Sammy is a bit rough, when we first meet Margot, she’s putting on a magic show for a group of enthusiastic children, and she’s immediately likeable. But she also matches Sammy’s gruffness with a forthrightness and refusal to sugarcoat any of life’s hardships, which is likely why Sammy takes an almost immediate liking to her. Newcomer Cech holds her own against the veteran actor. There are moments when she isn’t spitting barbs and her expression softens, her voice takes on a curious tone, and she let’s us inside her head, and we see that she isn’t mean-spirited by nature; she’s just really hurting.
Tsang uses some creative methods to illustrate some of Sammy’s flights of fancy that lend the movie an added touch of whimsy. A story about a princess and a bunny on the moon that Sammy’s mom used to tell her pops up throughout the film and is conveyed through black-and-white images that have an aesthetic similar to George’s Méliès’ fantastical silent films. At another point, Sammy imagines she is running away from the world on the back of a giant rabbit, like something out of a cheesy B monster movie. And Tsang draws on her background writing and directing for animation for other sequences where Sammy’s interior thoughts are brought to life through that medium.
Sammy and Margot both have past family trauma that they work through together over the course of their friendship, although Sammy so puts her family through the ringer that the rather saccharine finale feels rushed. But the story’s heart is evident regardless. “Marvelous and the Black Hole” may tread on familiar territory, but the Tsang’s unique voice makes it feel fresh- no sleight of hand trickery required.
“Marvelous and the Black Hole” will be released in theaters April 22. Runtime: 81 minutes.