Marvelous and the Black Hole, 2020.
Written and directed by Kate Tsang.
Starring Miya Cech, Rhea Perlman, Leonardo Nam, Kannon Omachi, Paulina Lule, and Keith Powell.
A teenage delinquent teams up with a surly children’s party magician to navigate her dysfunctional family and inner demons.
As a coming-of-age comedy with a quirky title, Marvelous and the Black Hole is quite probably the most typically Sundance-y film of this year’s festival. And while familiar to a fault, it mines the flippant charms of star Miya Cech for every drop they’re worth across its breezy 81 minutes.
13-year-old Sammy (Cech) is acting out at school, while struggling to come to terms with the recent death of her mother. An act of school vandalism prompts her buttoned-down father, Angus (Leonardo Nam), to present an ultimatum; enroll in a summer course, or go to a “corrective” military school.
Sammy reluctantly signs up to business class, though a hasty exit from the classroom during her first lesson leads to a chance encounter with Margot (Rhea Perlman), a middle-aged, no-nonsense magician. An apathetic Sammy is nevertheless convinced to become Margot’s assistant, and soon an unexpected bond begins to bloom, as each learns more about themselves through the other.
Not every film needs to strain itself in an attempt to break the mold, and what filmmaker Kate Tsang’s debut lacks in narrative ambition it mostly compensates for with its spunky attitude and fleet-footed pace.
Tsang wastes not a second of her film acquainting us with the fresh-faced girl one wouldn’t think capable of ruining a school bathroom. Restlessly, we cycle through Sammy’s bereavement woes almost as if the filmmaker herself appreciates the familiarity, before giving Cech the floor to hold court with her appealingly sassy, potty-mouthed sardonic lead.
Rhea Perlman could meanwhile have great chemistry with a cardboard box, so it’s little surprise she’s an effortlessly synchronous scene partner for Cech. Beyond the giddy joy of watching the veteran actress act out magic routines – and stealing every scene she’s in while doing so – there’s actually a little more here than the predictable arc of the wise mentor teasing out the young upstart’s self-confidence.
Margot herself carries a massive chip on her shoulder dating back to her own childhood, and though the expository means through which this is unfurled proves a tad clumsy, it ensures Sammy isn’t the only one seeking to find both her place and sense of identity in the world.
But the tropes from the “rebellious teen becomes self-actualised” playbook are certainly here all the same; Sammy’s well-meaning but repressed dad has a new partner who Sammy loathes; there’s a prissy sister, Patricia (Kannon), keen to rat Sammy out wherever possible; and of course, it’s all leading up to an inevitable magic show finale.
It’s not a unique dramatic outlay but at least it’s executed well, with sporadic spicings of earnest self-seriousness to ensure Sammy’s spiky personality doesn’t grate. Further livening things up is Tsang’s slyly cartoonish tone – surely no surprise given she’s an Emmy-nominated writer on Steven Universe – frequently interrupting the story with breakneck cutaways to surreal asides.
From black-and-white visualisations of recorded stories read aloud by Sammy’s late mother, to her more troubling personal fantasies – namely her murderous eye towards her dad’s new partner – these well-placed diversions again keep the overall ride from ever getting too set on a formulaic genre track.
With just enough edge to offset its more sentimental inclinations and overly tidy conclusion, Tsang’s debut is unlikely to knock the socks off many, but sufficiently re-calibrates the familiar to sustain its charm offensive throughout.
Conventional but lightly entertaining coming-of-age fare, Marvelous and the Black Hole succeeds largely thanks to an irreverent wild-child performance from Miya Cech and the ever-welcome presence of Rhea Perlman.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.