Books are a frequent source of mining in cinema. Sometimes their adaptations becomes something larger than possibly imagined (The Shawshank Redemption), while others support the notion that the imagination of the reader trumps anything celluloid can conjure (Artemis Fowl). Audiences don’t really know which one they’re in for (a) until they’ve seen the finished product and (b) whether they have any connection to the source material. With all of this in mind, let’s turn our attention to The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, directed by Ian Samuels (Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (2018)) and adapted by original short story author Lev Grossman (SyFy’s The Magicians). As I possess absolutely no knowledge of the short story, I saw The Map of Tiny Perfect Things presented as a fairly wholesome and optimistic YA romance which utilizes the same temporal anomaly trope used in films Groundhog Day (1993), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Palm Springs (2020). The Map of Tiny Perfect Things may not reinvent the wheel regarding time loops, but it may just shift how you look at the world.
Mark (Kyle Allen) is having a day. The same day, in fact, over and over again. He knows exactly what people will say and how they will move down to the second. When you have infinite time, all you’ll focus on is time: where to be to help X, where to be to prevent Y. Within his own little bubble of time, he is the master of his town. This all changes when he discovers Margaret (Kathyrn Newtown), a local girl he’s never met, who is stuck in time like he is. If one person can’t figure out the “why” of it all, perhaps two can.
A film like The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is one that you enter with low expectations. I went into it fairly blind, having only watched a film clip, and still, figured I knew what the premise was. Two people are caught in a loop and try to get out. We’ve seen this before and, for some, it will seem totally uninspired. Where Palm Springs, for instance, found its joy in making their single days as absurd as possible (up to a point), Map is more interested in the smaller moments. It doesn’t want to trick or confound you, nor is it simply some kind of YA romance using a time loop as a prop. Map genuinely entertains, eliciting, from this reviewer, real tears as the characters explore the variety of surprising opportunities that repetition affords (who cares if you hit any cars, they’ll be fixed tomorrow) and the depths of pain that same repetition condemns. For instance, we’re first introduced to Allen’s Mark, who is already on his unknown-numbered day of the loop and is having a grand time. He’s found his groove and enjoys himself as he does it. But in order to do all the things that he does that are clearly highly practiced, it means he’s literally doing the same thing each day. He’s trapped, yet seems to be going along with it willingly. He’s reached the point past hyperawareness where he needs to think how to react and just does. That’s high-level cognitive function. That’s flow. But flow without genuine concern or care gives way to monotony, especially when, as played by Allen, Mark remains focused on himself and his circumstances. To a degree this shifts with the introduction of Newton’s Margaret, at which point the film shifts and opens just a bit, but, underneath it all, something is brewing. You just have to be open to seeing it. If you presume you know all the places Map will go, you’ll end up frustrated by the destination. However, if you allow yourself to just experience it as it happens, you may find yourself somewhere unexpected.
Newton is quickly becoming an actor whom I will take a chance on no matter which project she’s attached to. She first hit my radar with Supernatural as Claire Novak, bringing a pathos to a character who could just as easily be written off as “teenage angst incarnate.” Her small role as Angela Hayes in my favorite film of 2017, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, served as the emotional catalyst for the narrative and her brief appearance required her to resonate with audiences long past becoming nothing but a flame for her mother’s resolute rage. She’s absolutely delightful alongside her CGI partner Psyduck in Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019) and puts the terror back into adolescence in 2020’s Freaky. Each of these roles are significantly different, yet they offer pieces of an actor whose varied experience enables them to make the most of the sweet, the sad, the loud, and the quiet with a confidence that makes everything seem natural. This is particularly key with her role as Margaret, a character seemingly split in two: one who is joyously open, clearly in possession of the knowledge and capacity to understand and potentially escape her circumstance, while also shrouded in a perpetual state of disassociation and mystery. Newton’s offers a balancing act which requires her to be guarded, yet confident; independent, yet hopelessly tethered. One might first view her as a manic pixie dream girl type, whose scientific knowledge and confidence mixed with her initially-seeming quirkiness is indicative of someone who may save Allen’s Mark. Upon closer inspection, Margaret is not a savior and she is no one’s miracle. In part due to Newton’s performance and Grossman’s adaptation, Margaret is, well, Margaret: a person with thoughts, feelings, desires, and faults. She may be in a time loop with Mark, but it’s not up to her to get them out.
This carries us to an aspect of the narrative which is particularly moving: the use of the anomaly. The film doesn’t treat the audience as stupid, with characters using references to Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow as cultural shorthand for what’s happening to them. The characters don’t make these references just to have the audience pull a Steve Rogers, it speaks to the way the characters themselves view their situation. Groundhog Day centered on someone who needed to learn to become a better person. Edge of Tomorrow used a more specific science-fiction methodology by making its central character tainted by the alien invaders’ time travel tech, so that it wasn’t so much metaphorical as it is science-ish supported. Even the recent dramedy Palm Springs based their temporal anomaly in actual science, offering a rhyme and reason for the events. These frequent references enable Mark, and later Margaret, to conceive of solutions to their situations. It makes about as much sense as the in-narrative explanation of time travel in Avengers: Endgame (2019) that they would approach it this way, yet, by framing it in the way two teens might helps create an interesting baseline of exploration. Unlike those other films though, Map is a touch more abstract to the point where I’m reminded of a Ted Lasso line, “I believe in ghosts, but more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves, ya know?” Another way to put it is that because the characters believe it (the reason), all that happens within Map becomes possible by that sheer fact. There is some scientific support for manifestation so the plausibility of Map doesn’t quite seem so left-field, though it may strike some as a little too easy or magical. To that I remind folks that you’re watching a movie involving a time loop that, if the characters are being literal, may have occurred more than a thousand times. Reality isn’t something you want to cling to with this kind of story. What you can do is determine how well they follow their own rules and, well, Map does this beautifully. Digging further in would touch upon some spoilers, so check out the film and then hit me up. We can talk later. Suffice it to say that where the loop is used as a means of growth (Groundhog Day) or an opportunity to change one’s internal psychological perspective (Palm Springs), the purpose of the loop within Map serves the characters more than it does provide opportunities for time loop shenanigans (though there are plenty of those, too).
The end result of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a film which is immediately familiar while offering something wholly unique. It reminds us that what we think we know is often far less than what is available to know, that what we see is far less than what’s out there, and that the best joys, the purest of joys, come from the unexpected. Not unexpected as in “surprise,” but in the uncanny way in which wonderful things happen. Like scoring a winning goal in a tense match or dancing at the sight of having the perfect hand. Like seeing nature in all of its cruel wonder or noticing the corners of your world that typically go totally ignored. For Mark and Margaret, being given the gift of time means that they have the opportunity to catch all the things they miss. While we aren’t afforded that terrible luxury, Map reminds that by allowing ourselves to be so focused on what time we’re losing that we miss the things that make our time worth spending.
Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning February 12th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.