Fine performances and an abiding intelligence are the hallmarks of “The Magic of Marciano,” an engaging, credible and sensitively rendered tale of a young boy’s passage through some turbulent emotional waters. Tony Barbieri’s follow-up to his impressively austere debut feature, “One,” is both more conventional and accessible than that 1998 Sundance cult item, although its rigor and almost surgical precision in dealing with difficult issues make it anything but a commercial crowd-pleaser. Strong reviews, keyed to praise for the fine work of leads Nastassja Kinski and Robert Forster, would be essential for any theatrical life, but cable and video will play a more considerable role in delivering this solid picture to audiences that will appreciate it.
James (Cody Morgan) is a 9-year-old who, at the best of times, is left to his own devices. His single mother Katie (Kinski), a diner waitress in a quiet coastal town, is living with a loutish layabout, Curt (Jason Cairns), who lords it over James in ways that sometimes cross the line into abuse. An obviously bright kid without role models or motivation at home, James isn’t doing as well as he might at school, and more or less foists himself upon Henry (Forster), a confidant and genial man who spends his days prepping his boat for a round-the-world sail.
Buoyed when his mother kicks Curt out of the house, James quickly pushes the idea of hooking her up with Henry, an arrangement that would certainly solve all of James’ problems. But, in an excellent after-dinner scene, the calm, sympathetic but stoical Henry keeps the very attractive and available Katie at arm’s length as she reveals herself to him while compulsively drinking and smoking.
Henry, a widower with two grown kids and plenty of money, has it all together, while Katie is in quite the opposite state, and there is no way this principled, composed man is going to take on the heavy baggage with which Katie is burdened, no matter how much he would like to help James.
Just when James imagines things are looking up for him, matters take a considerable turn for the worse when Katie unaccountably takes Curt back in. A very violent episode followed by Katie’s incarceration abruptly leaves James alone in the world and faced with a dire future unless fate, or the right individual, takes a hand in his life.
The very same material could easily have been treated with easy and superficial sentimentality in telefilm style, but writer-director Barbieri looks at his characters with a psychological exactitude that in itself is absorbing.
Kinski’s Katie is a complex woman who, having undoubtedly always got by too easily on her looks, has neglected to build up other qualities of character. She loves her son but is still narcissistically self-absorbed as well as increasingly insecure about her appeal and prospects. In a career highlight performance, Kinski gives an extremely sharp reading of this fragile, imbalanced and reckless woman.
By contrast, Forster’s Henry is the picture of a truly decent human being, a man comfortable in his own skin and with his place in the world. Short of outright heroes, this sort of character is rarely portrayed in drama due to the lack of inner conflict, but Forster makes him an immensely sympathetic, even magnetic individual whose eventual difficulties in deciding how best to help James are conveyed with perfect clarity.
Morgan is very good and intermittently unpredictable as a kid who maintains a certain healthy optimism even when the wind is blowing from the wrong direction.
Working in warmer, less distanced style than he did on “One,” writer-director Barbieri takes his time developing his story and characters, which pays off in substance and credibility.
Solid effort lacks the sort of directorial quirks and frills that young filmmakers often use to draw attention to themselves, but Barbieri’s methodical, thorough approach will, one suspects, work in his favor in the long run, when he begins tackling more ambitious projects.
Shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, pic looks good and is enhanced by Harry Gregson-Williams’ fine score. Title’s meaning is noted internally but doesn’t connect with the material in a resonant way.