Not quite adult enough to be young adult, and not quite a children’s film either, Kate Tsang’s “Marvelous and the Black Hole” is a sweet-natured throwback, the kind of film a parent might wish their young teen would watch, rather than whichever dystopian franchise or fanfic adaptation they’re currently involved with. A set-your-watch-by-it riff on the unlikely-friendship-helps-two-lonely-people formula, this time involving a troubled schoolgirl and a stage magician, it is however so nicely performed and takes such honest pleasure in the flourishes of its little magic show, that only a hard heart would mention that the palmed coins and hidden cards of its construction were visible all along.
Thirteen-year-old Sammy is played by rising TV star Miya Cech (best known in film as the younger version of Ali Wong’s character in “Always Be My Maybe”), who deserves as big a breakout as so small a movie can give her. Resentful and rebellious, her sulky face accessorized with black eye and scowl, in the film’s pleasantly punky intro she’s waiting in the hallway outside the principal’s office for her father Angus (“Westworld” actor Leonardo Nam). “What sort of monster would do this?” her teacher asks, showing Angus the incriminating photos of a set of vandalized toilet stalls — though the vandalism is hardly monstrous, mostly involving toilet paper wastage.
But Angus has had enough. Sammy, a little estranged from her online RPG-obsessed older sister Patricia (Omachi Kannon), has been acting out since the death of her mother, her grief and anger exacerbated by the increasing seriousness of her dad’s new relationship with Marianne (Paulina Lule). And while her stick-and-poke tattoo habit is probably largely benign, the way it is presented here is reminiscent of ritualized self-harm and cutting, and for a short while it seems like “Marvelous” might go in a darker direction.
But it swerves: After this latest episode, Angus threatens to send Sammy on a program designed for difficult teenagers, which Sammy imagines in black-and-white footage as a merciless military-school-style bootcamp. However, he stops just short of that nuclear option and enlists her instead in an evening class — which happens to be a 101 in Small Business ownership run by the painfully upbeat Leo (“30 Rock”‘s Keith Powell, who could have been used more).
Through a fairly contrived series of events, the entirely uninterested Sammy ends up proposing that her business idea be stage magic, after she runs into the Marvelous Margot (Rhea Perlman) and is co-opted into her performance. To an audience of enraptured kindergarteners, Margot’s lo-fi but effective act culminates in a trick in which huge flowers blossom all over her outfit, and, though she quickly hides it, Sammy is charmed. It doubtless connects with that part of her that still listens to tapes of her mother’s stories, and imagines vivid animations of their moon-princesses and space rabbits.
If Margot is not quite the unbearable stereotype that “wacky older lady magician” might sound like on paper, credit Perlman’s simplicity and understatement in a role that could easily have been too florid. Instead, exuding a quiet, shrewd understanding of Sammy’s inherent goodness despite her ’tude, Margot, who has her own sad backstory, waits for the girl to come to her, and the bonding begins. It’s a process that happens a little too rapidly to be believed, but soon Sammy is ditching class to practice more, which gets her into even more trouble with dad. If only there were some way that Sammy could convince her loving but uncomprehending father that in magic she has found a conduit for the pain and loss they all share! In unrelated news, a final class presentation date looms.
Director Tsang, who also wrote the script for her debut feature, comes from a background writing for TV toons “Steven Universe Future” and ” Adventure Time,” which perhaps shows in the more fanciful graphic interludes that sometimes intervene on DP Nanu Segal’s already warm and colorful photography. And while in broad strokes the narrative follows a familiar template, there are nice details that give it its own kind little heart. Not least, the various ethnicities of the characters are neither ignored nor overly foregrounded (the family is Asian; Margot is white, originally from Hungary; Marianne is Black).
Another gratifying aspect: Margot might be eccentric but she’s actually good at her job, performing for kids because she believes it is helpful, not because she’s a has-been. So if at first, achieving healing via card tricks and capes seems a reach, eventually, as Margot’s philosophy is revealed, Sammy’s act becomes more of an analogy for any form of creative expression that provides an outlet for unmanageable emotion. You don’t have to be wholly convinced by the film to take pleasure in its faith that most anything can be solved with sincerity, storytelling and some very slight sleight.