13-year-old Sammy Ko (Miya Cech) is a problem child. Prone to skipping class, smoking cigarettes, and mouthing off to her teachers, she’s the opposite of the meek model student Hollywood typically imagines when writing young Asian-American characters. Our scowling heroine’s got baggage, and a lot of pent-up anger, in part because things are beginning to get serious between her workaholic dad, Angus (Leonardo Lam), and his girlfriend, Marianne (Paulina Lule). But Sammy’s anger comes from a place of deep hurt. The wound of losing her mother several years ago remains unbearably fresh. So much so that she comforts herself at night by listening to old audio recordings of her mother reciting her famous bedtime stories. Do her father and sister not even care?
Writer/director Kate Tsang cleverly straddles childhood fantasy with the baser impulses of adolescence, drawing an angsty portrait of teenage girlhood in transition. But even as a movie geared towards young adults, ‘Marvelous and the Black Hole’ feels innocent to a fault. Perhaps its approach will fare better with audiences in the earlier stages of puberty, but the film’s “cute but deadly” humor will likely fall flat for adult viewers. Nevertheless, Tsang’s loving depiction of a troubled Chinese-American family undeniably has its charms. It’s especially effective given the subtlety with which it integrates cultural details: the sisters’ strict home life, for instance, or the Chinese fairytale-bent of Sammy’s favorite story.
After Sammy gets caught vandalizing the school bathroom, her father gives her one last chance to prove herself before shipping her off to boarding school. She must ace a business entrepreneurship course at the community college over the summer, which requires her to launch a hypothetical business rooted in one of her passions. But since Sammy hates everything, this assignment proves frustrating—that is until she meets Margot (Rhea Perlman), an eccentric woman who could be her grandmother, and a skilled magician who finds work performing at schools and children’s events.
Margot is something of an outsider herself, and in Sammy, she sees her younger self, also full of rage after the events of a traumatic childhood. Though Sammy initially dismisses Margot’s profession, she finds herself captivated by its mysteries much in the way she cherishes her mother’s stories. In one of the film’s many transportive interpretations of Sammy’s innermost thoughts and feelings, Tsang uses archival footage of military training camp to visualize the girl’s understanding of what boarding school looks like. When Marianne comes to mind, Sammy imagines sawing her in half. But instead of a magic trick, the two boxes open up and spill out Marianne’s red gooey guts. These are the film’s most compelling beats, though Tsang’s interpretation of disaffection feels annoyingly out of touch, absent the social context and technological factors that play into modern teen rebellion.
Meanwhile, Margot and Sammy’s relationship takes a disappointingly conventional route with a narrative that fits squarely into the inoffensive intergenerational-friendship genre. Under Margot’s apprenticeship, Sammy is immersed in the world of magic and develops her own act that she plans to debut for her business class’s final project. Sammy’s also got something to teach Margot about the value of family, and encourages the older woman to seek out her estranged relatives. But wildcard Margot isn’t the purest influence; she coaxes Sammy into skipping class, which predictably comes back to bite the duo right when Sammy’s anger issues begin to subside. Perlman is a natural Ms. Frizzle-esque mentor, gruff but playful and mischievous. It’s a shame she is little more than a vehicle for Sammy’s self-realization, with Tsang’s thin attempts to build out her backstory feeling contrived. It’s great that “Marvelous and the Black Hole” exists—for far too long have white teenagers dominated the American market for coming-of-age stories—but this effort simply doesn’t take the necessary risks to capture the attention of a wider audience. [C+]