by Jordan King
Marvelous and the Black Hole, written and directed by Kate Tsang, is a lovely curtain closer on my time with the Sundance Film Festival this year and the sort of film that feels perfectly pitched for family film nights the world over when it becomes widely available.
Sammy (Miya Cech) is thirteen years old. Having lost her mother a few years ago, it is safe to say the weight of that loss was the catalyst for the unruly character she has become by the time we meet her. Smoking cigarettes, backchatting her teachers, skipping school, and acting hostile towards her father as well as his new girlfriend, from a desperately sympathetic life-changing event has sprung the kind of kid that models the nihilistic teen archetype that has given parents nightmares for generations. In the film’s early moments, Cech’s portrayal of a totally disaffected and disillusioned teen is filled with wholly believable and grating attitude, and yet there is a sadness in her eyes that betrays the tough exterior she presents.
When Sammy’s rebellious behaviour reaches breaking point however, she is presented with an ultimatum: she can either attend a careers-based Summer class, or she can be carted off to a boarding school. Black and white war-camp style fantasy sequences make Sammy’s aversion to option two very clear, and though one isn’t much better to her, she takes the lesser of two evils and joins the class. When Sammy’s urge to run gets the better of her during one of her classes however, she runs into the path of Margot (Rhea Perlman), an eccentric travelling magician who has come to perform for a group of children – ‘I like to make the children smile’ she later sweetly and simply explains, though we later learn of a yet more poignant purpose to her magical ways.
Realising that she faces expulsion and that boarding school beckoning, Sammy finds herself playing assistant to Margot, or Marvelous to use her stage name. Even as embittered as Sammy has become, Marvelous’ sleight-of-hand routine – which includes a beautiful stop-motion aided trick which sees brightly coloured flowers grow all over her outfit – entrances her. Though Sammy tries to pretend like she doesn’t really care for Margot’s magickery, as she learns the ways of the magician and becomes ensorcelled with her and her band of fellow conjurers, an unlikely friendship forms that helps both Sammy and Margot reconcile with their inner demons and rediscover the beauty of life as well as the power of friendship.
Taking well-worn tropes and familiar beats from the coming-of-age genre, Tsang transforms them into something refreshing and new through magic tricks, quirky animation, and the inspired pairing of Cech and Perlman. Though seemingly nothing alike as either actresses or characters, the pair share an on-screen chemistry as ‘tutor’ and ‘pupil’ that is as heart-warming and real as the tutor-pupil relationship that blossoms into something more akin to a mother and daughter in another of Perlman’s films, Matilda. In fact, Danny DeVito’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is maybe the most ‘if you like this then you’ll love this’ comparison to be made with Marvelous – both films playfully place imagination at the heart of their narratives, and both celebrate and acknowledge the maturity that often goes underestimated in children and the immaturity that often goes underappreciated in adults. Also, in both films, Rhea Perlman is unimpeachably perfectly cast.
Kate Tsang’s feature debut, the story of a grief-stricken rebel teen and the surly magician who brings her back from the brink, is hard to pick any real fault with. Conjuring moments of pathos and heartfelt wisdom alongside laughs and silliness in a small-town adventure with a universally relatable core, Tsang has shown her hand as a director here. I’m pleased to report it’s aces all the way without a hint of phoneyness.
Marvelous and the Blackhole played as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021