From a distance, Marvelous and the Black Hole looks like another coming-of-age movie about an angsty teenager meeting a wise mentor. But trade in the usual smart-mouthed teacher or sports coach for a magician played by Rhea Perlman, and you get a bit more flavor. Take that angsty teenager and make her equal parts prickly and endearing, with a splash of cultural specificity, and that’s already something zestier.
Combine all that and more, and the movie Marvelous and the Black Hole has enough whimsy and quirkiness to transcend its well-trod territory. The feature directorial debut of Steven Universe: Future and Adventure Time: Distant Lands writer Kate Tsang is equal parts edgy, whimsical, charming, and gritty, which adds up to a unique experience of its own.
[Ed. Note: This review contains mild setup spoilers for Marvelous and the Black Hole.]
Surly 13-year-old Sammy (Miya Cech) is forced to take a summer class at the local community college after her latest act of deviancy lands her in the principal’s office near the end of the school year. Under her prickly personality, Sammy is grappling with the her mother’s death and her father’s new relationship. While avoiding class, Sammy runs into eccentric stage magician Margo (Rhea Perlman). The two begin an unlikely friendship after Margo takes Sammy under her wing and starts to teach her stage magic.
The most dynamic part of Marvelous and the Black Hole is that central relationship. It does take Cech a bit of time to find her footing in the movie, especially when she’s on her own in the early scenes. But once she and Perlman connect, they make an unforgettable pair. Sammy needs someone to call her out on her bullshit, but at the same time, she needs someone who won’t give up on her. Margo simultaneously instills a new sense of magic in Sammy, and also gives her more productive outlets for her anger and sorrow, without ever being overly didactic. Meanwhile, Sammy inspires Margo in other areas of her life, particularly in reminding her about the importance of family.
Sammy and Margo represent familiar character archetypes — the rebellious teenager and the wise mentor — but the specificity Tsang writes into them gives them more depth, and the that the actors bring to life with electric chemistry. Margo is a strong-willed older woman whose idea of being maternal isn’t coddling warmth, but pragmatic grit and resilience. Sammy is a prickly, angsty teenager dealing with grief. But she’s also Chinese-American, and seeing this particular kind of black-clad rebel also be a young Asian American girl is refreshing. A rebellious Asian teenager isn’t an unheard-of character archetype, but Sammy is a central character, rather than someone’s love interest or best friend, and she goes on her own emotional journey. (Also, the fact she doesn’t dye her hair is a nice bonus.)
These specificities go beyond the main characters and help color the movie. Sammy’s older sister Patricia, for instance, could very well just be a typical responsible eldest child. But she’s also a gamer, obsessed with a fictional game called Kingdom Cog, where she meets up with her secret boyfriend via online play. Sammy’s father brings home a durian, a notoriously stinky fruit that Sammy’s mother hated, which causes Sammy to feel like he’s violating her mother’s memory. These idiosyncratic elements lend themselves to some laughs, but also weave together a more personal and intimate story. Sammy and her family feel real, because they have memories and personalities that vibrate off the screen.
Some of the strongest scenes come when no one speaks at all, leaning on the visuals to capture emotions. In particular, the scene where Sammy’s father takes her and Patricia to an arcade stands out. In the darkened arcade, the three of them try their hand at games, bonding for what feels like the first time in forever. The glow of the lights around them makes the sweet scene almost melancholy. It’s a powerful visual language that also translates to other moments in the film, particularly the stage magic that Margo performs and Sammy learns.
Marvelous and the Black Hole heads mostly in the direction viewers would expect it to go — Sammy learns; she lashes out; there’s a bigger falling-out before all the pieces can be picked up, but ultimately she walks away a better person. But that doesn’t stop it from being a gorgeous ride, peppered with delightful quirks that help elevate the movie. Sometimes the acting is stiff and sometimes the plot points are routine, but overall, it’s a transformative magic act, taking the familiar and using a few flourishes and sparkles to turn it into something magical.
Marvelous and the Black Hole debuts in select theaters on April 22.