The biggest strike against Kate Tsang’s movie is how formulaic it feels for a Sundance movie.
This is my 11th year attending Sundance. If you’re not a Sundance regular and don’t see the kind of coming-of-age indies that premiere at the film festival, then you might be more inclined towards Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole. The movie doesn’t do anything “wrong” as much as I’ve seen it every year for 11 years now. I’ve seen the movie about the angry teen who strikes up a quirky relationship with an outsider that helps both characters overcome personal trauma. It’s a formula, and when you hew so closely to a formula, the only place you can maneuver is in how you play by those rules. For Tsang’s part, she has a light touch and some nice animation, but the story is so thin and well-worn that it really doesn’t have anything new or fresh to offer, which is one of the reasons we watch independent movies in the first place. When you watch a movie like Marvelous and the Black Hole, you’re left to wonder if Sundance can learn any new tricks.
Sammy (Miya Cech) is lashing out over the recent death of her mother. Her father (Leonardo Nam) is at his wit’s end after she gets kicked out of school, so he offers her an ultimatum: either she takes an intro to business class at the community college or he can send her to boot camp. Sammy reluctantly takes the deal, but while at the college she bumps into Margot (Rhea Perlman), a children’s magician who conscripts Margot into serving as her assistant. The two strike up a friendship where Sammy starts learning magic but continues to wrestle with her anger over losing her mother and her father’s new romance.
If you’ve seen an indie coming-of-age dramedy in the last 10 years, you probably know where Marvelous and the Black Hole is headed. On the one hand, there’s nothing automatically wrong with a film intended to comfort ends up being formulaic. We sometimes look to those familiar beats as a way to relax and unwind without intense dramatic stakes. Tsang is under no obligation to blow up the genre if her story happens to follow those beats. The problem is that Marvelous and the Black Hole struggles to make the case for its own existence when it devotedly hits every dramatic beat we expect. Sammy’s story fails to feel unique, and instead she becomes a cog in a machine where we can appreciate the surrogate mother figure she’s found in Margot, but never really connect to the characters beyond a surface acknowledgment of their relationship.
And again, this is where I’m coming from as a frequent Sundance attendee. You may not be as accustomed to films where an angry teenager from a single-parent household learns to grow and change like in Morris from America or Big Time Adolescence or Hellion. Also, if people didn’t like these kinds of movies, I suppose they wouldn’t keep getting made and admitted to one of most prestigious film festivals in the world. But I also feel like independent film should push the envelope in some way and tell stories that aren’t being told, and while I like that Marvelous and the Black Hole is from the perspective of an Asian-American teenager, ultimately it’s the kind story I’ve seen quite a few times, and I wish there were something fresher and a little edgier beyond the fun animations that Tsang occasionally drops in. You can tell from the editing and flourishes that Tsang has more to offer than this familiar story provides.
I can’t really get mad at Marvelous and the Black Hole. I can really only greet it with a shrug. It’s sweet, inoffensive, and instantly forgettable. For some viewers, Marvelous and the Black Hole may be comfort food; a slight indie that tells an uplifting story with a mix of warmth and humor, and that may be good enough. But when I look towards films made outside the studio system, I want to see something that isn’t as formulaic as any blockbuster.
For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, check out the links below:
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