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Marvelous and the Black Hole Heals Grief With Tough Love

Image courtesy of Nanu Segal

There’s a throwaway line from a community college professor in Marvelous and the Black Hole that directs the main character to “thrive in the uncomfort zone.” The small business teacher named Leo is trying to motivate his students through the unique planning challenges of getting prospectuses off the ground. Frankly, it sounds like something pithy and ultimately forgettable written on one of those motivational posters hanging in someone’s office. Serendipitously though, the opposite becomes the case. That line, among many others that follow, could sneakily summarize the FilmRise Sundance darling Marvelous and the Black Hole. Little wonders and big feelings percolate, intersect, smear, and overwhelm a collection of very unique yet relatable people in this film, and the effects could not be more touching and soul-stirring. For folks willing to seek it out in limited theaters, a rewarding hidden gem awaits you.

In this dramedy, a high school teen named Sammy (Miya Cech of Nickelodeon’s The Astronauts) has been on a tear of destructive behavior since her mother passed away in the past year. The former smiling daughter of Angus (Westworld’s Leonardo Nam) and little sister to gamer addict Patricia (newcomer Kannon Omachi) has spiraled into a cycle of disillusionment, cigarettes, self-harm tattooing, and school trouble. This rudderless path is made worse by Angus considering marriage to the new woman in his life named Marianne (TV actress Pauline Lulu).

A girl with a black eye glares upward.
Image courtesy of Nanu Segal

The seemingly one solid thing that can calm Sammy down when she locks herself away in her room are old audio tapes of her late mother reading imaginative stories of fantasy. Those daydreams are very creatively reenacted in little black-and-white daydream vignettes of theater and puppetry. Still, those private memories are insufficient to cure her tailspin.

The defiance expressed by Miya Cech is well-measured in one of the better youth performances of recent memory. Her moments of silent rage as Sammy balance and hit as hard as her verbal outbursts to mask her grief. In that way, there becomes more bracing honesty in her speeches than precocious tantrums because those painful words feel like a last resort from holding it all back inside and calculating prickly responses. That edge between absorption and expression is a key central conflict in Marvelous and the Black Hole thanks to Cech.

At the end of his patience, tolerance, and financial stomach for more therapy bills, Angus punishes Sammy with summer courses at the community college and backs that line in the sand up with a trip to a behavioral improvement camp if the school measure fails. That’s what lands Sammy in the chipper Leo’s (Keith Powell of The Beta Test) class on small business introductions, where her lurid money-making ideas are a storefront of letting people break things or a door to door euthanasia service.

A father stares across a dinner table next to two women.
Image courtesy of Nanu Segal

While ditching class in the bathroom, Sammy runs into a children’s magician named “Margot the Marvelous,” played by the prominent mettle of Rhea Perlman. Margot helps Sammy cover her absence by enlisting her to be her stage assistant for a daycare center show. Personally intrigued by the sleight of hand dazzlement and semi-married to magic being her business idea for the class project, Sammy attaches herself to Margot.

Margot is the kind of tough old broad who will pull a screw-up by the arm or the ear if necessary for a corrective chat. She sees much of herself and her own past in Sammy. Her combination of tough love and inventive mentorship as an important mother-figure presence makes for the kind of quality time, guidance, and personal improvement Sammy has been missing for too long. With the simplest inflection spoken in the repeated advice of “Try again,” Margot’s cruising patience is a salve to Sammy’s impetuous attitude and damaged nerves.

Rhea Perlman is a jewel of showmanship north of 70 years old in a plum part most actresses her age do not often receive. Perlman’s first performance in magician mode is spellbinding in the most charming, corny, and adorable ways. Margot shares with Sammy that her goal is to “make an audience feel wonder.” Gosh, does Rhea ever achieve that and then some as her own character’s history comes into view. Crassness is still her forte, but Perlman trades zingers to meld that with wealth of heart and empathy in this movie.

A magician smiles with advice for her pupil.
Image courtesy of Nanu Segal

Margot is constantly chiding Sammy to find a story to go with her developing magical act. It’s clearly a soft euphemism for finding activities, emotional outlets, people, and joys that keep you on the right path and take you away from your demons and distractions. In a very convincing fashion, that stagecraft storytelling art in Marvelous and the Black Hole imitates life. Not unlike stand-up comedians, a magician cannot get by with a disconnected series of tricks or jokes, and neither can a normal person with their own moment-to-moment events. One has to weave all the feelings, all the aims, all the quirks, and all the memories that formed them into their own unified, rich, and defining story.

Debut feature film director and writer Kate Tsang exemplifies that healthy ambition by telling a very personal tale that mirrors her own. Staying extremely down to earth, her Marvelous and the Black Hole crafts a lived-in period of time for these connected characters and their struggles. The vibe stays intimate with stable camerawork from cinematographer Nanu Segal (The Levelling), economical editing, and an electronic-infused score that morphs with the light and dark moods instilled by Cinderella rocker-turned-composer Tom Keifer.

A larger movie would inject extra stakes or some kind of public or larger display of celebration for when it all works out as a means of manufacturing extra importance and attention. Tsang avoids those tropes and temptations. She keenly shows that the only fulfillment necessary is right there at the family level and the corresponding bonded friendships. No good graces are forced while still being entirely earned.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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