I found myself considerably moved by filmmaker Kate Tsang’s directorial debut, Marvelous and the Black Hole. On paper, the film appears like a simple and familiar tale of a mentor/mentee relationship; a feel-good movie with a predictable trajectory. In the wrong hands, something like this could come across as overly childish or just plain boring. But Tsang imbues her work with a distinctive visual flair and an honesty that appeals to a younger audience without ever talking down to them or taking them for granted. As a result, her film joins a growing list of emotionally intelligent stories that do more than just convey the intense feelings that children experience – think Inside Out – but offer positive and healthy conduits for them.
Marvelous and the Black Hole follows Sammy (Miya Cech), a snarky young teen with loads of angst to spare. Since the loss of her mother, Sammy has been acting out more and more. We’re introduced to her with a black eye, sitting next to her father (Leonardo Nam) in the principal’s office as he goes through photos of her handiwork: crude graffiti litters the halls and toilet paper has been chaotically strewn across the bathrooms. Barely able to contain his frustration, her father utters “It’s been a tough year. We’re all still trying to adjust.”
Sammy’s trauma manifests itself more as anger than sorrow, and her self-destructive tendencies – which include giving herself homemade tattoos on her thighs – force her father to send her to a community college class with the threat that if she can’t get her act together, he’ll have to send her away to a camp for the summer. And not the fun kind. Naturally, Sammy ditches the class on her first day, only to run into a surly but vivacious magician named Margot (Rhea Pearlman). She’s roped into the older woman’s act and, even though she refuses to show it, can’t help but be captivated by the colorful and uplifting presentation. Before either of them know it – and unbeknownst to her dad – Sammy is regularly skipping class to spend time with Margot, learning magic and blowing off steam.
The intergenerational friendship at the center of Marvelous recalls other recent films like Andrew Ahn’s Driveways or even Matt Ratner’s Standing Up, Falling Down. But Tsang makes the deliberate choice to have this friendship be between two women, and by making the emotion of choice anger for both Sammy and Margot, she’s able to represent a specific kind of sentiment that’s not often seen in woman-led films outside of revenge stories. Margot has been through traumas of her own, but she teaches Sammy how to channel her pain not just through artistic expression, but also with simple and healthier coping mechanisms like screaming into a pillow when she’s frustrated. Needless to say, she has plenty to learn herself from her younger cohort. It’s a moving story of two people finding each other when they need it most.
The cast is brilliant, particularly Cech’s vulnerable yet fiery performance, and the weary desperation that Nam brings to the role of her father gives the film its emotional anchor. Marvelous’ strongest aspect is its direction, which injects the film with whimsical and creative visuals. Whenever Sammy’s father mentions camp, she imagines old-timey, grainy boot camps. When she’s angry at the fact that he’s dating a new woman (Paulina Lule), we’re shown a shockingly hilarious daydream that involves a chainsaw and a lot of blood. At night, she listens to tapes of her mother telling stories, and these play out in black-and-white sequences that resemble a stage play. Margot adorns her house, car, and outfits with stunning florals, and the camera is always sure to linger on them just enough.
But the film’s most poignant imagery is the way Sammy’s angry scribbles are scrawled across the screen. It’s a simple but beautiful way to convey her feelings to the audience better than dialogue ever could. Marvelous’ final act is when it pushes into more dramatic territory, and it’s handled with a clear focus that isn’t afraid to get into the territories of depression and how it can boil over. Tsang is a writer for Adventure Time: Distant Lands and Steven Universe Future, two critically acclaimed series that have pushed the boundaries of children’s television with themes of trauma, grief, and ultimately, healing. They’re also noted for their distinctive art styles and creative use of imagery. Tsang brings it all to the big screen and flips the switch to live-action, and there’s no doubt that this film will benefit and touch people in the same way those shows have. I wish I had this movie growing up, but I’m glad to have it now.