Guaranteed to have viewers levitating, “Make Believe” is a charming, affectionate and often elegantly executed study of teenage magicians, their craft and the social shadows they step out of when they do their stuff. As one plainly puts it, they’re “different,” adolescent human curiosities in a theatrical carnival where the greatest illusion can be their transformations from uber-nerds to polished performers. As a result, it’s a kind of personal heroism that helmer J. Clay Tweel captures in this Los Angeles Film Festival jury prizewinner, which will materialize in at least some theatrical venues, en route to a substantial cable play.
Although the graceful score and Tweel’s editing allow “Make Believe” to virtually waltz onto the screen (“The Blue Danube” is playing, and the cuts flow like water from a bottomless pitcher), it does ascribe to a formula, one derived from the “Spellbound”-style docu template. A major competition looms — in this case, the annual World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas — and a group of kids are prepping for the big day. En route to their contest, the hopefuls are introduced, the depths of their characters plumbed, their faults assessed and their families interrogated. Once the suspects have been profiled, they can get down to business.
The filmmakers are no strangers to drama, competition or illusion: Producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon made the 2007 videogame docu “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (Gordon also exec produced and co-directed the upcoming “Freakonomics”). Tweel had various credits on “Kong,” and producer/Firefly Film founder Steven Klein is a member of the Academy of Magical Arts & Sciences (based at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, where some of the film was shot).
But pic’s greatest asset is the eclectic assemblage of kids at its center: Krystyn Lambert, a shockingly poised blonde from Malibu and one of the magic world’s more promising stars-to-be; Bill Koch, a big-faced French horn player from Chicago; Derek McKee, a once painfully introverted Colorado kid for whom magic has worked some kind of social abracadabra; and Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana, a South African duo whose ebullience and good nature make their comedy-magic act something unique and irresistible.
And then there is Hiroki Hara. Raised in Kitayama, Japan, where there’s not even a market, much less cell-phone reception, he has, as he tells it, been inspired by the nature surrounding him. Free of distractions, he has devoted so many hours to practice that his manual dexterity, particularly with playing cards, approaches genius, his stage movements resemble ballet, and his samurai- and kabuki-accented act is nothing the magic world has ever seen. (“I want to be Asian when I grow up,” says an awe-inspired McKee.)
Nothing ever goes as planned, of course, or expected. Without actually torturing us, Tweel teases out the results of the Teen World Champion faceoff, but you don’t mind the cliffhanger approach because the kids and their skills are such fun to be around. “How many teenagers,” asks one of the more established magicians at the end of the film, “know who they are?” And how many are so accomplished, while being so casual about it?
Production values are superb, notably the use of music and d.p. Richard Marcus’ lensing.