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Sammy sitting at a desk in Marvelous and the Black Hole
Image: Filmrise

Culture

Marvelous and the Black Hole is a Refreshingly Nuanced Take on Teen Life

A teenage delinquent teams up with a surly children’s party magician to navigate her dysfunctional family and inner demons.

Marvelous and the Black Hole Review

“It has the emotion. But where’s the transformation? The awe?”

This is the question that Margot (Rhea Perlman) asks young Sammy Ko (Miya Cech) when they discuss Sammy’s artistic vision for a magic show. It is also, quite poignantly, the question that writer/director Kate Tsang demands of every filmmaker who attempts to tell stories about teenagers.

Like Sammy during her early artistic efforts, people who tell stories about youth often face the temptation of falling back on big, obvious emotions like angst and hyperbolic drama. The real challenge, of course, is learning how to explore these big emotions alongside the subtle, beautiful, and awe-inspiring transformations that accompany them. It is its ability to showcase these transformations that makes Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole truly special. 

The film begins with Sammy in a very dark place. After her mother passes away, she finds herself stuck in a pattern of self-destruction and anger as she struggles to find a healthy outlet for her feelings. Her father and sister also have very different coping mechanisms than she does, causing her to feel isolated and confused because she doesn’t understand why they don’t mourn the same way as her. She then has a chance encounter with Margot, a professional magician, who introduces her to the wonderful world of illusion and helps her learn how to channel her rage and sadness into art. Perlman is, of course, every bit as fantastical, emotionally compelling and charming as her reputation promises.

Image: Filmrise

What is truly magnificent about the film is how believable Sammy’s transformation is. Sammy’s introduction to Margot’s marvelous world is expertly paced: she is never won over too quickly by the wonder, but she is also never entirely closed off or overly resistant. Sammy always believably exists somewhere on a spectrum between hope and despair, and the film ensures that her navigation of this spectrum is realistic and nuanced. Sammy’s growth is expertly mapped from beat to beat, and she is in a tangibly different emotional place in every single scene. Her constant transformations are clear enough to be noticeable, but subtle enough that they don’t feel rushed or overly obvious.

A big part of this is Cech’s astonishing performance. Cech’s acting is the opposite of one-note: in every single scene, she hits a slightly different emotional note, ensuring that Sammy never feels flat or overly-defined by one trait. Sammy is different enough in each scene to ensure that she is an ever-growing character, but consistent enough that her growth is realistic and grounded. 

Every moment of anger has a small touch of hope, and every moment of excitement has a touch of fear. No two of these moments register the same, and Cech always channels a unique combination of feelings specific to the moment she is experiencing. It is rare to see a teenage character’s growth charted with such grace and mindfulness, and it is impressive to watch.

Of course, Cech’s acting alone is not the only thing that carries the film. Tsang’s writing and direction are mindful and insightful in a way that makes it surprising that this is her first feature. The pacing of Sammy’s emotional journey is as much a product of Tseng’s deft touch as it is Cech’s brilliant performance.

While this film is largely a character study focused on Sammy, it is also a story about her relationship with her family. Leonardo Nam and Kannon Omachi give remarkable performances as Sammy’s father and sister, and the film does a wonderful job exploring the vastly different ways that people process grief. 

Marvelous and the Black Hole (2021)
Image: Filmrise

A central concern of the film is how alienating it can be to process grief when the people close to you are experiencing the same grief but coping with it in very different ways,. This is beautifully portrayed in the Ko family’s story. Omachi’s Patricia, a hardcore gamer and cosplayer, is also a breath of fresh air. The film industry has been woefully terrible at representing these particular aspects of modern youth culture, and Patricia captures them them at least adequately, which is a huge step above most contemporary cinema.

It is worth noting, as Carolyn Hinds has discussed at length, that there are concerning racial dynamics that happen when the film’s only Black woman is put at the centre of Sammy’s violent fantasies. Sammy sees her future stepmother Marianne (Paulina Lule) as an outsider and an invader into her family, and her fantasy about murdering Marianne is visually and violently depicted onscreen. While the violence is not racially-motivated, the fact that Marianne is the only Black woman in the film, and one of only two Black characters, makes it stand out as a potentially harmful and concerning image. Hinds identifies the discomfort she experienced watching the film as a Black woman, and it is important to listen to this perspective.

Overall, Marvelous and the Black Hole is a beautiful exploration of the ways that artistic expression can help someone work through grief. It is also a brilliant character study that highlights the talents of rising star Cech and established performer Perlman. Tsang has tapped into a particularly nuanced and compelling story that treats its characters with a sensitivity and an understanding that makes the film absolutely marvelous.

Written By

Steven Greenwood is a Montreal-based writer & director, and the Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions. He holds a PhD from McGill University with a focus on queer cultural history, and he teaches university courses in film, theatre, and popular culture. His work is influenced by his passion for queer history & culture, and he is a fan of all things geeky, pulpy, campy & queer. You can find him on Twitter @steven_c_g or on Instagram @steven.c.greenwood.

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