A magician brings some wonder and healing into a troubled teen’s life in the comedic drama Marvelous and the Black Hole, a film with an uneven tone that ultimately succeeds in part because of its leads’ chemistry.
Making her feature directing debut, writer Kate Tsang (Steven Universe) weaves the unlikely friendship of “Marvelous Margot” (Rhea Perlman, The Mindy Project) and Sammy (Miya Cech, The Astronauts) through Sammy’s heartache over the death of her mother. Sammy is just shy of fourteen, and whimsical animation and black-and-white footage illustrate her angry and fanciful thoughts, but the film’s magic is in the compassion she finds in Margot.
Perlman, a Primetime Emmy winner and comedy veteran (Cheers), and Cech play beautifully off each other. Part of the film’s bumpy tone relates to Sammy’s self-harm and other behavior. But Cech is sympathetic throughout, and she and Perlman create characters with sincere depth and feeling.
Marvelous and the Black Hole opens with a rocky start to Sammy’s summer: vandalizing the school and catching a black eye when she runs into a door trying to escape a security guard. Her fed-up father (Leonardo Nam, Westworld), who already has sent her to therapy, announces that he’s enrolled her in a business class at the community college. Either she stays out of trouble, or he’ll send her away to a boarding school.
The film doesn’t go into details about Sammy’s mother’s death, or how her father met his girlfriend, Marianne (Paulina Lule, General Hospital). Sammy can’t understand how he’s been able to move so quickly, though, or why this doesn’t bother her older sister, Patricia (Kannon, Wildflower). Mostly, Sammy doesn’t know how to express the anger and pain she feels. She gives herself x-shaped tattoos with a pin on her upper thigh and listens to a recording of her late mother telling a story about a beloved empress and a rabbit on the moon.
Determined to alter between surly and sarcastic, Sammy encounters Margot one day in the college restroom and blows cigarette smoke into the chatty woman’s face. Margot hauls her off to report her to the office, but when Sammy begs her not to get her in trouble, Margot ropes the girl into being her assistant for the day instead.
Dressed in a sharp green suit, Margot performs a series of tricks for a roomful of children while telling a story, and Perlman’s delivery is gentle and captivating, even before she makes a white rabbit appear from nowhere. Tsang’s medium shots and closeups show Sammy as captivated as the youngsters, although she tries to hide it.
Sammy’s business class gives the two a reason to talk further, but Tsang’s sharp script keeps Margot from being a convenient adviser. She first gives Sammy an assignment: Prove she’s worthy of the older woman’s time by figuring out how Margot does her tricks. Even after Sammy passes this test—and becomes intrigued to learn more about magic—the characters’ wry humor keeps their relationship from becoming too saccharine. Magic is about making an audience feel something, ideally wonder, Margot says, although “I’d settle for rage in your case.”
The third act and the resolution feel somewhat abrupt, but it’s hard not to root for Sammy as she develops a touching magic act all her own. Perhaps that’s the best and most subtle trick that Marvelous and the Black Hole has up its sleeve: Grief doesn’t have to disappear fully for life to blossom in unexpected ways.