Urgent, artful and even austerely poetic, writer-director Tze Chun’s “Children of Invention” has taken some time hitting theaters after a much-lauded tour of the fest circuit. But in that time, its issues have ripened to a point where the movie seems ripped from the headlines: foreclosures, Ponzi schemes, children facing an uncertain economic future. This domestic drama seems very much of the moment — maybe the next moment — and could ignite a passion among some indie auds via its delicate treatment of a small family in the jaws of financial ruin. Self-distributed rollout begins in Boston, followed by New York and Los Angeles.
Divorced with two kids and no more house, Elaine (Cindy Cheung, “Red Doors,” “Lady in the Water ) is getting zero support from her ex, who’s gone back to Hong Kong. She’s trying to make ends meet by selling real estate in the Boston suburbs while pursuing every opportunity she can find in network “marketing” — which seems to be, predominantly, pyramid schemes. Although she’s been in the States for a decade, Elaine hasn’t quite grasped the concept of the scam, so she’s a perfect pigeon: The Gold Rep company offers her the upfront money she needs to join their team, because they know she’ll guilelessly bilk other poor immigrants out of their life savings.
Tze takes a chance in spending so much time with Elaine upfront in this often uneven film, because the real story rests with her son, Raymond (Michael Chen), and daughter, Tina (Crystal Chiu). But it’s a risk that, for the most part, pays off, because the young actors generally seem so natural and unaffected (Chiu moreso, but perhaps only because she’s younger). Chen’s Raymond addresses his mother with the kind of recriminating stare that might wilt a Mother’s Day bouquet, and has developed a stolid attitude toward life. As far as the movie is concerned, he’ll need it.
With very little overt articulation about their long-term plight, Tze uses the children to make an eloquent and profound point about kids for whom life has become a crap shoot. Their father is already gone, and when Elaine is picked up by police as part of a Gold Rep roundup, Raymond simply assumes that Mom, like Dad, has left for good. He has to take action. So begins a journey that amounts to the daily commute for millions of Bostonians but, for these two kids, is like a safari to the moon.
There’s a suggestion in “Children of Invention” of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows,” based on a real-life case in Japan in which children lived by themselves for months. Chun’s tale is less epic, but there’s a similar suggestion about a world in which children could simply be forgotten, and lost. Raymond wants to be an inventor; hence the title. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but these children of invention are desperate for a sense of safety.
Tech credits are very good, particularly the juxtaposition of Chris Teague’s well-composed images with editor Anna Boden’s sense of film-as-mosaic, which together enhance the movie’s feel of fractured reality.