This is the fifth piece in the Sundance Film Festival 2021 series by Julie Fukunaga and Olivia Popp. Follow along for coverage of films from Sundance’s reimagined virtual festival.
To resume Sundance coverage, we feature Kate Tsang’s “Marvelous and the Black Hole,” a breath of fresh air in the otherwise heavy atmosphere of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. With writing credits on “Steven Universe” and “Adventure Time: Distant Lands,” Tsang continues to tug on our heartstrings with her first feature-length film, filled with (literal) magical flourishes and incredible softness — once you get past the surface.
In the first scene, we’re introduced to Sammy (Miya Cech), a sour-faced 13-year-old delinquent whose response to the recent loss of her mother is anger, stick-and-poke tattoos and fistfights during recess. Fed up with her mischief, Sammy’s father confronts her with a dilemma: choose between attending a community college class or the Camp Sparrow Cliff, a military-like disciplinary summer camp. She reluctantly opts for a business administration class and makes her displeasure clear to the students, all of whom are several decades older than her. Looking for any excuse to ditch class, Sammy finds herself face-to-face with teaching artist and magician Margot (Rhea Perlman), and tags along to one of her magic shows.
Some of the most memorable shots in the film are the animated stills of magic tricks, spliced between Margot’s storytelling magic shows. When Sammy sees Margot perform for the first time (much like the final shot of the film when Sammy has a few tricks up her sleeve), everything stops for a moment, lost in the whimsy and fantasy of Miss Margot’s magic — which ranges from sprouting beautiful flowers from her cape to conjuring a rabbit. Despite thinking it’s incredibly uncool, Sammy begrudgingly agrees to be Margot’s magician’s assistant, marking the start of an unlikely friendship filled with genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and wholesome character development.
Witnessing Sammy’s coming-of-age as she comes to terms with the loss of her mother is quite moving. There’s a certain cheesy brightness to the film (a contrast to the titular Black Hole) as Sammy finds refuge in her newfound talent for magic and ability to confide in Margot, filled with “wizard lady” wisdom. The friendship between Margot and Sammy is unexpectedly beautiful, affirmed through acts of service, gesture and surprisingly foul-mouthed banter.
Throughout the film, we also get small glimpses of Asian American culture, including the woman and the rabbit in the moon — coincidentally also the core folk tale of Netflix’s “Over the Moon” (2020). While at times heavy-handed, especially concerning food politics, I was particularly moved by the role oral storytelling played in “Marvelous.” One of the central images in the film featured Sammy listening to old tape recordings her mother had made of traditional folk tales. We see Sammy grow throughout the film, from only expressing her grief through her fists to finding closure, processing and verbalizing to her family the complex feelings she’s lived with since her mother’s passing. It is truly magic, a perhaps unconventional extension of oral storytelling and performance, that makes the difference.
In many ways, the film shined enough for me to overlook the elements that felt rushed, especially the climax (for both Margot and Sammy) that sprinted too quickly for it to fully land. Navigating “serious topics” such as mental illness, depression and overbearing familial expectations is not the forte of the film, nor does it need to be. This film is one of “just-enoughs”: just enough humor, just enough whimsy, just enough character development — and I don’t find myself longing for the heavy-handedness on which this film could have easily relied. “Marvelous” ultimately strikes a balance between flashy and subdued — a sweet, heartfelt watch for anyone who’s looking to lift their spirits.