At 13 you’re too young to be treated like an adult, and you’re also not fully out of the weeds of those icky preteen years. Being stuck in that unstable place can lead to acts of rebellion and bad behavior, and in “Marvelous and the Black Hole,” Kate Tsang’s cute coming-of-age comedy, Sammy (Mia Cech) is about as insufferable as anyone could be on the verge of 14. She skips class, smokes cigarettes, badmouths her father, and spews venom at any authority figure in her path. That is, until she meets Margot (Rhea Perlman), a kooky magician who hasn’t entirely matured either. Their unlikely bond forms the basis for this twee trifle that opens a window into the pangs of growing up, and though well-meaning, leaves a saccharine aftertaste. Still, it’s grounded by newcomer Cech, who effectively channels the angst of teendom into an offbeat tale.
After she’s caught vandalizing her school bathroom, and even worse shows up at home with a black eye, Sammy is given an ultimatum: pass a summer-school course built around career aspirations, or get shipped off to a boarding school for delinquents that, through flights of black-and-white fantasy, Sammy likens to a military bootcamp. A perennial brat, Sammy’s not inclined to clean up her act, and is especially aggravated over her single father’s (Leonardo Nam) new girlfriend (Paulina Lule). Sammy’s mother is out of the picture, having died not too long ago, so her bold behavior is surely an acting-out inherent to the cycles of grief that are relatable, if patience-testing, for anyone who can’t cope.
But Sammy is so defiant and unruly, it’s difficult to warm to the character at first. Perhaps her constant ‘tude may allow her to resonate with young audiences perpetually mad at the world. And while Sammy may have trouble interfacing with actual humans, she more comfortably disappears into fantastical reveries (often hand-drawn onscreen), and displays a creative streak in the way she secretly etches stick-and-poke tattoos onto her body. A portal into her imagination is opened up when she meets Margot (played with dotty charm by Perlman), a magician whom Sammy wants to make the subject of her show-and-tell piece as part of summer school — an idea balked at by her teacher, who thinks she’s not taking the assignment seriously.
Margot’s introduction is a lovely one, as she performs acts of magic culminating in a bouquet of roses slowly blooming from her coat. Whether Margot’s performance is a well-crafted feint, or the actual stuff of dreamlike fantasy, is left to the audience, as some of her tricks are pretty astounding. Sammy finds inspiration in this strange spinster who grabs joie de vivre by the bootstraps, and tries to teach herself magic of her own. At first, with little success, until Margot lets Sammy into her coterie of quirky magicians, who take the girl under their wing.
Newcomer Mia Cech does solid work in immersing us in Sammy’s frustration and sadness, even if the script doesn’t always give her the best lines to punch with. Whatever the opposite of a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of girl is, that would be Sammy, who’s all roiling interior rage that comes bursting out in brazen or passive-aggressive acts — like crashing her father’s car, or insulting his dad’s new girlfriend by packing up her toiletries in an attempt to send her out the door.
The friendship between Sammy and Margot has a “Harold and Maude”-like charm, as the latter tries to help the former see the world as a wondrous place, and in the process, buried wounds awaken in the both of them. The trajectory is altogether cliche, though shot with some finesse by Nanu Segal in an anamorphic widescreen that often frames Sammy as a speck in a larger picture. Young moviegoers on the precipice of adulthood might see something of themselves in Sammy who, by the end, finally starts to grow up. It’s just hard to pinpoint what hard-won lessons, exactly, she’s learned.
“Marvelous and the Black Hole” debuts at Sundance on January 31 in the Premieres section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.