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“Whimsy and Magic”: Marvelous and the Black Hole Review

Photo from IMDb

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer

Marvelous and the Black Hole is not about any Marvel character nor about space. The black hole here is the emptiness left by the death of a mother and the anger of a 13-year-old girl, Sammy (Miya Cech), which swallows up every opportunity of youth.

Looking at the photo, you might think of domestic violence or even school fights. However, Sammy’s black eye resulted from her vandalizing school property and is played for laughs. While her older sister, Patricia (Kannon), and father, Angus (Leonardo Nam), have moved into the fifth stage of grief (acceptance), Sammy is wallowing in stage two: anger. 

Her father has slowly been introducing another woman into the family’s life: the serene and understanding Marianne (Paulina Lule). Undoubtedly, even before Angus makes the announcement, the girls must suspect the possibility of getting a new mother.

Sammy’s reactive and destructive nature have pushed Angus to make an ultimatum: Sammy must pass a summer course in business, or she will be sent to Camp Sparrow, a boot camp specializing in straightening out delinquent youths. Angus also warns Patricia, “No more games if you’re getting into trouble.” This is an especially frightening punishment for Patricia, who is deep into the Kingdom of Cog, a multiplayer video game.

I personally enjoyed summer school, but Sammy isn’t that type of kid. Her teacher Leo (Keith Powell) is one of those upbeat, eternally cheerful life coach types. His sunny disposition only deepens Sammy’s scowl. 

In his Intro to Small Business class, Leo asks each student in the almost embarrassingly small class to choose a business. He’s thinking of something like doggy daycare or a smoothie joint. He asks his students, “What is your passion, and how do we turn that passion into money?”

He wants his students to go big. Sammy is determined to go dark. Her suggestions include a store where you can buy a bat and break everything or a euthanasia service that makes house calls.  

While at summer school, Sammy gets pulled into helping a small older woman who bills herself as Marvelous Margot (Rhea Perlman). Margot performs sleight of hand tricks and small feats of magic. Her target group is young kids, who are at an age when they can still feel the wonder of magic before they become snarky, pint-sized hecklers. 

Slowly, Margot works her magic on Sammy, who finds herself interested in performing her own. Sammy’s story, because every magician has to have a gimmick or storyline, is pulled from Chinese folklore. The story involves a beautiful goddess, a rabbit and the moon.

If this sounds familiar, it should be. The 3D computer animated feature Over the Moon also used a version of this story, but Marvelous and the Black Hole is rooted in reality. No one is really building a rocket or visiting the moon.

Writer/director Kate Tsang has created a whimsical world, where a girl can start a friendship and find a new support family that re-introduces her to her re-forming family and gives her the means to finally reach acceptance gracefully. Cech, who recently played Ali Wong’s daughter in American Housewife, delves deeply and darkly enough for her smile to seem like a sliver of hopeful sunshine at the end. Perlman’s Marvelous Margot isn’t campy or cartoony. She is a real person with her own grief who has also, in her own life, had to find her way to acceptance. 

With sensitivity and care, director Kate Tsang delivers a touching coming-of-age story punctuated by moments of whimsy and magic. Newcomer Cech’s heartfelt performance fully immerses us in Sammy’s sadness, grief and anger and inspires us to root for her growth, while Perlman gives a charming, wry presence as the girl’s unlikely mentor.

In her brief intro, Tsang said that this film is “about finding hope and resilience during dark times,” and after 2020, that’s probably something that everyone needs. The film inspired me to try and put a little magic into my life, but my sleight of hand was greeted with more disappointment than wonder. Dogs don’t make the best audience. I hope this film finds the right audience and, should you be inspired to learn a few tricks, I hope you find the right audience as well. 

Marvelous and the Black Hole premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021.

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