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Doing the Trick

Nanu Segal/Sundance Institute

Marvelous and the Black Hole (2021)

Teenage anger and teenage coping mechanisms finally get their due in this sensitive and charming film about how a girl learns how to live with her grief. There are no villains in the movie other than everyone’s pain. Thirteen-year-old Sammy (Miya Cech) is acting out so much about her mother’s death that by the end of the school year her father Angus (Leonardo Nam) has had it. To give her summer some focus, he forcibly enrolls Sammy in community college classes, through which she meets Margot (Rhea Perlman), a children’s magician and the Maude to Sammy’s Harold. The requirements of the course compel Sammy to seek out Margot’s help, and the relationship that slowly springs up between them is a blessing to them both.

Ms. Cech confidently carries the film as an overwhelmed kid coping with her trauma in firmly PG-13 ways, such as the homemade tattoo kit hidden in a puppy purse, which comes out at moments of high stress. Her squabbles with her older sister Patricia (Kannon Omachi, a real find), who copes herself through a sandbox video game, hit the right sisterly notes of selfishness, solidarity and grudging affection. Angus is a good dad, but out of his depth and leaning hard into a new relationship with Marianne (Pauline Lule), which Sammy resents in age-appropriate ways. Her memories of her mother (Jae Suh Park) focus on a tape of bedtime stories, which Sammy pictures as black-and-white stylized Korean fairy tales. But it’s Margot’s grumpy encouragement and bottomless skill at sleight-of-hand that’s able to get through to the sweet kid lost underneath her anger.

Ms. Perlman is just wonderful as an adult who instinctively manages to treat Sammy in what Sammy thinks is an adult fashion, such as expecting the rabbit cage to be cleaned out in return for a favor. The induction into a magician’s group centers on whether Sammy has remembered to bring “a worthy snack.” But the greatest achievement of writer-director Kate Tsang’s film is that it lets Sammy learn her lessons for herself. Everyone – including Jonathan Slavin in a small but crucial part – is on her side. But the adults know what Sammy doesn’t, that her choices are up to her. Yong Ok Lee’s production design, Amanda Bujak’s costumes and Nanu Segal’s cinematography combine to provide Sammy a crisp, colorful world to skulk around in with her black t-shirts and bloodied legs. If she could just set aside her despair and open her eyes, she might find something to smile about again. This wonderful movie will speak directly to pre-teen girls, but also give plenty of older people the cheerful kick up the backside that we all need from time to time.


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