The “face” of the coming-of-age story has been changing: It is not that teenagers have changed — far from it in fact, when the woes of adolescence remain one of the most universal parts of the human experience — but it is apparent in recent years that the default notions of what a “teenager” should look like has changed to be better reflective of what the viewing world needs today.
From the adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and to the animated Turning Red, there has been a growing breadth of Asian American representation in the latest zeitgeist of movies, especially when it comes to the portrayal and depiction of youth stories that have long needed to be told.
Marvelous and the Black Hole follows a teenage delinquent named Sammy (Miya Cech); Sammy gets into fights, has been skipping school, and also resorts to smoking and acts of self-harm by making stick and poke tattoos on herself. Sammy’s father, Angus (Leonardo Nam) has enough of Sammy’s behavior and forces her to enroll at a business course at a community college or she will be sent to a boot camp.
In reality, their family has been dysfunctional ever since the death of their mother and they have been unable to healthily process it — all while Sammy’s behavior is the worst outcome of its impact. Sammy’s older sister bullies her and hides away in her nerdy hobbies. Meanwhile, Angus has been trying to further take things to the next level with a new girlfriend. Trying to drown out the noise of her family, Sammy turns to her late mother’s stories every night to escape into imaginary worlds.
After barely getting by one of her first classes at the business course, Sammy runs into an older woman named Margot (Rhea Perlman). Sammy has an immediate impression on Margot, and Margot drags the troubled teen to a magic show she is performing for children.
Sammy tries to shrug off her fascination with what she had witnessed, but she gets roped into Margot’s antics as her magic apprentice of sorts by being pressured into needing a project idea for the business course. With a sleight of hand both literally and figuratively, Sammy develops an unexpected bond with Margot that she never realized she needed, finding solace and comfort in the magic and lessons produced in her home and the people she meets through her.
But despite suggestions that Sammy has found a place of happiness that she hasn’t had in a long time, she’s been skipping classes to spend more time with Margot. As these absences catch up to her, Angus also announces that he intends on marrying again, putting Sammy at a near breaking point — terrified and angry at the concept of her mother being replaced. Through Margot’s teachings and Sammy’s own influences on the enigmatic magician, their unlikely pairing helps each other heal from their own respective troubles as the two try to figure out how to bring wonder back into the world.
Marvelous and the Black Hole tackles grief, trauma, loss, and family. And although a story that is centered around an Asian American main character and her own family (in which there many nods to such, such as when Sammy darkly comments to her father he’s only a stickler as a result of intergenerational trauma caused by his own mother, her grandmother) the specifics of cultural references and in-jokes do not muddle the issues that are ubiquitous and can resonate with anyone going through said themes. It iterates that our methods of storytelling do not have to take on specific appearances and decorum to be “relatable” and that unifying concepts like interpersonal issues lends itself to the power of a narrative.
One of Marvelous and the Black Hole’s strong suits is also within its visual presentation, in which scenes are intercut between archival footage, animated segments, and campy scenes displaced from the main film as an expression of Sammy’s state of mind and imagination.
Just as the film revolves around magic, Marvelous and the Black Hole also seems to pay homage to special effects of old film, largely stemming its origins from the profession of stage magic to begin with, thanks to illusionist Georges Méliès as one of the first innovators of the medium to incorporate these effects into film. Accompanied by these hokey effects are the sequences that recreate the stories told by Sammy’s mother, which seem to owe their visual language to the tokusatsu genre and old fantasy martial arts works. Marvelous and the Black Hole is very intentional in where it chooses to be kitsch and where it chooses to be restrained. The vibrant mixture of multimedia scattered throughout the film steadily conveys the tumultuous emotional arc Sammy undergoes.
To loosely quote what Margot has been trying to say to Sammy throughout the film, it is less about forcing suspension of disbelief and hiding the strings in your act, but more about the overall impact the final show ends up having on the audience. The journey of adolescence can be rough around the edges, but the journey recovering from tragedy can also be magical. A visual treat in more ways than one, Marvelous and the Black Hole is a spectacle in all the ways that it unabashedly depicts the nuances to the experience of solace and loss — and that no one has to endure it alone.