**Trigger Warning: Brief scenes of self-harm.**
When loss occurs, there is no single right way to grieve. There’s no time limit on how long, no requirement beyond what your community expects. For Jews, for instance, there’s a tradition of sitting shiva, a week-long mourning period for immediate parents, spouses, or children beginning after the burial. The intention is to spend time together, using each other as needed to begin the healing process. What of life after the shiva? Well, that depends on which branch of Judaism you follow. Depending on your faith, there are a variety of rules, but, ultimately, it’s up to the individual to determine how long you should grieve, how long before you should allow yourself to heal, and how long before allowing yourself to move on. It’s these three aspects which writer/director Kate Tsang (Steven Universe) explores in her feature film debut Marvelous and the Black Hole, a dramedy that’ll have you laughing through tears.
It’s been a rough year for Sammy (Miya Cech), sister Patricia (Kannon Omachi), and father Angus (Leonardo Nam) beginning with the loss of Sue (Jae Suh Park), their mother and wife. After Sammy’s most recent outburst, Angus decides that the best thing he can do to help her stay out of trouble is to keep her busy by either sending her to take an Intro to Small Business course at a local community college or sending her to a rehabilitation camp for troubled teens. She reluctantly opts for the class, yet finds her instructor, Leo (Keith Powell), and course so useless that she bails at the first opportunity. It ends up being a fortuitous decision as she meets Margot (Rhea Perlman) in the bathroom, a magician who drags her out of the bathroom, forcing Sammy to be an assistant as Margot performs for kids at a day care on campus. At first, taking part in the show inspires an easy answer for one of Leo’s prompts, but there’s something about Margot and magic that awakens something within Sammy, offering a chance at transformation.
Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole is at once devastating and uplifting. Walking the finest line between comedy and drama, nailing the underpinning truth within the story. This is a very specific tale, yet it’s universal in its depiction of how one might respond to loss. From time to time, Marvelous includes small animated drawings, either to add a little emphasis to something Sammy is watching or to help the audience envision and connect with something she’s doing. These are little things that are not much more than flair, especially when compared to 2021’s Ninjababy which featured an artist having conversations with the drawing she made of her baby, but they amount to a great deal, helping to signify an artist’s view of the world around her. Touches like this help convey more about Sammy than dialogue can (aspects of the film we’ll get into in a moment) and help open the door for the audience to accept Sammy’s interest in magic after meeting Margot. Sammy’s already creative, already in-tune with that part which understands the power of imagination (hence the illustrations we see), so her pivot into magic isn’t so strange. Thematically, it’s also interested because magic is about transformation, whether of perception or something more tangible, which is what Sammy undergoes from start to finish (both a perceived and physical transformation). Credit to Tsang for selecting magic as the vehicle to make her thematic elements more tangible, but, then, as a former writer of animated program Steven Universe, she’s clearly no stranger to the required balance to make a metaphor powerful. And powerful her approach is as I spent much of the film in tears through the wonder.
Most impressive is how much this layered dramedy trusts the audience to roll with it where it matters. The script wastes zero time on explaining the past at the start and relies on inference to put together the rest. There’s no grand exposition-centric speeches, no sense that the characters are discussing things that they otherwise wouldn’t. This makes the world we’re introduced to feel all the more real, especially with the aura of fantasy and magic to come. An example of this is the briefest of lines by Pauline Lule’s perceived interloper Marianne, the love interest for Angus and nemesis of Sammy, who comments about not thinking she’d ever feel as she does for Angus again. The film implies at the start that it’s been a rough year, with only one other marker in the film indicating a length in which Angus and Marianne have been together, thus an inference can be made from this comment that Angus and Marianne met in a group grief counseling session. There’s a similar method to understand Margot’s backstory when Sammy comes to her home and sees an old photo from her grandmother’s home in Tállya, dated 1954, only two years before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. All around Sammy are stories of possible pain and potential healing, yet she is unable to see any of it due to her own narrowed perspective cultivated by her pain. Her’s is a self-fueling rage: a mixture of despair at what she’s lost, rage at the perception that others have moved on, and shame at her reactions. Certainly all of this is communicated brilliantly through Cech’s performance, but it all goes back to the script and what Tsang’s laid out. Before even a single image or reference of one is made, the audience understands who the “Black Hole” in this tale is, sucking in all things, destroying it all in her wake.
The major issue that stood out to me comes strangely a bit in-line with Tsang’s own awareness of cinematic language in that one must be *of* a culture in order to *know* a culture. The central outward conflict that Sammy must overcome is the friction with her father and it’s been teased the whole film that her success in the community college course is the only thing keeping her from a “problem child” camp; thus, the two must come to a head. The way the script kicks that off is via a phone call from Sammy’s teacher to her father. Now, I fully recognize that Tsang’s economical script blasts past some of the smaller details in order to make her larger points, but this is a problem. As a former instructor at a community college, a teacher can’t communicate with a parent directly unless paperwork is filed stating such (all part of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). It’s possible that this was done and we didn’t see it, but Tsang’s script so smartly lays out all the rest of the film that this easily could’ve been addressed by way of a throwaway line when her father laws down the rules of how Sammy’s summer can go. It’s also possible that Powell’s Leo is just a shitty teacher who no ethics, but I suspect it’s an oversight or something done to move things along more easily within the final act.
If one presumes that each magic trick contains three parts — the pledge, the turn, and the prestige — Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole follows the same path. We start with an ordinary tale of loss centered around a girl in pain who is then sent down her own personal rabbit hole, only coming out of it the same but different. She is not unrecognizable, but she is different: transmogrified into a version of Sammy who handles her pain differently. This is, perhaps, what I like best about Tsang’s film. There’s not a sense of being made whole, but of moving on when it concludes. There’s hope amid the grief, a light implying that Sammy’s tale (and that of her loved ones) isn’t over just because the trick is complete. There’s plenty of story left to tell — the Black Hole revealing something revitalized on the other side.
In select theaters April 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to Filmrise’s official Marvelous and the Black Hole webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.