If its title wasn’t a giveaway, Marvelous and the Black Hole is a quirk-heavy comedy that approaches authenticity in moments, only to retreat back into its governing tweeness.
Like a forgotten remnant of a mid-2000s edition of Sundance, Marvelous and the Black Hole would’ve fit right in with the numerous post-Napoleon Dynamite, post-Little Miss Sunshine quirk-fests that littered movie theater screens. Proof that what Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry do is harder than it looks, Marvelous takes all the clichés of the coming-of-age, mismatched buddy movie, and scribbles a bunch of weird nonsense in the margins. Here, attempts at portraying real human behavior butt up against sitcom-style shenanigans, with everything pitched to the rafters. Friendships get formed via montage, life lessons are learned, and deeply-rooted family conflicts are mended in a tidy 80-minute runtime, all accompanied by a treacly score. It even ends with a stage performance. Fancy that.
Sammy (Miya Cech) is a typical disaffected teenager. Still reeling from the untimely death of her mother, she’s lashing out at her father (Leonardo Lam) for having a new girlfriend and keeps getting into trouble at school. Dad gives her an ultimatum: take a class at the local community college to try and get some direction, or it’s off to a boot camp for juvenile delinquents. Sammy reluctantly agrees, attending a business class and eventually meeting kooky magician Margot (Rhea Perlman). Under the aegis of teaching Sammy about her “small business” — Margot makes a living performing for children — the two gradually form a friendship while Sammy discovers a passion for sleight of hand. It’s all pretty straightforward, going exactly where you think it will and hitting every beat along the way. Writer/director Kate Tsang tries to inject a little life into this moribund scenario, but these stylistic flourishes are themselves mostly just collections of other, different clichés. Random animation periodically appears on screen, while Sammy has daydreams that manifest as faux-black & white, silent movie footage.
Tsang got her start writing for Adventure Time and Steven Universe, and Marvelous works best when it leans into bite-sized snippets of comedy. But it’s hard to build a feature out of bits, and the laughs are few and far between. Characters are defined by useless quirks, like Sammy’s sister’s addiction to a goofy video game or Margot’s habit of stealing toilet paper wherever she goes. More troubling and pointed is Sammy’s habit of tattooing small black X’s on her thigh when she gets particularly angry, an obvious analog for self-harm, but one here softened so as to be less shocking for potential younger viewers. It’s the kind of specific detail that grounds Sammy’s character in an actual, recognizable reality and suggests a more dangerous pathology at play, but, of course, this is dropped as soon as Sammy makes her new friend, and never brought up again. That’s really the film in a nutshell, creeping up against something that feels authentic and then quickly retreating back into idle tweeness. The cast is game, and Tsang can compose a frame, but there’s just not much here that genuinely compels.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.