Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

At its most basic level, all magic is a lie. Magicians are just deceivers who use sleight of hand or elaborate props to present a fictional scenario to the audience. Maybe the reason I don’t enjoy watching magic is that I hate being lied to. I find it impossible to watch a magician’s routine without ruining the fun for myself and immediately looking up how the trick was done.

While I don’t have the same dislike for film as I do for magic, ever since I’ve started watching movies I’ve been interested in the behind-the-scenes processes. They say films have a sort of ‘movie magic,’ but just like stage magic, movie magic is an elaborate deception. Behind every Hollywood tearjerker are producers in pin-striped suits, directors with big egos and actors looking for their big break. Knowing these things spoils the illusion of “movie magic.” 

“Marvelous and the Black Hole,” however, feels like real magic. The greatest strength Kate Tsang brings to her directorial debut is authenticity — but this is no illusion. Being an indie film made on a shoestring budget, “Marvelous and the Black Hole” feels like a labor of love from everyone involved with the production.

The authenticity of this movie reveals itself most prominently in its ability to tell a dark story without taking itself too seriously. The editing of the film is full of funny and flashy jump cuts, and Tsang’s background in animation shines through the film at multiple points, such as when a scene is scribbled over in marker to reflect teenage doodling. While the subject matter is death and angst, the lighthearted tone of the film makes the viewing experience fun.

At the center of the film is the wonderful chemistry between Sammy (Miya Cech, “Rim of the World”) and Margot (Rhea Perlman, “Poms”). Sammy, a 13-year-old troubled by the recent loss of her mother, is a vessel of unrelenting rage. She vandalizes the school, gives herself stick-and-poke tattoos and brazenly smokes cigarettes in public places. The only thing that seems to scare Sammy is the threat of her father sending her to military school. 

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

On the flip side is Margot, a magician Sammy runs into while attempting to ditch school. Margot does not perform the cerebral, mind-blowing magic you would expect from magicians like David Copperfield or Penn & Teller, although you suspect that she is talented enough to be able to perform those stunts. Instead, Margot, with a personality so sweet it’ll give you a cavity, chooses to perform magic for kids.

The film seems to be very curious about how different people deal with trauma. Every member of Sammy’s family deals with the loss of Sammy’s mother in very different ways. Sammy’s father (Leonardo Nam, “Westworld”) attempts to suppress his grief through his work and time with his fiancé, and Sammy’s sister (Kannon Omachi, “First Day Back”) builds a recreation of her life with her mother in her Sims-esque video game.

In a Q&A session after the premiere, Tsang explained her intentions to create a film based on her childhood experience. Being the child of divorced parents, she observed that all the members of her family dealt with the divorce in dramatically different ways. Tsang’s experience is also captured through the film’s predominantly Asian cast; she had previously expressed her frustration with the lack of actors of Asian descent in the coming-of-age film genre.

Aside from the choice to feature an Asian cast, “Marvelous and the Black Hole” offers little else to differentiate itself amid the sea of indie coming-of-age films. Cutting through the flashy editing and colorful characters, the film covers little new narrative ground and the plot offers no real surprises. They say in the world of magic that a magician is never to repeat the same trick twice. It seems “Marvelous and the Black Hole” is the repetition of a trick that has been performed many times before.

“Marvelous and the Black Hole” is a film with an abundance of heart, but it relies on its heart to keep it interesting. If anything, this film shows potential from both Tsang and Cech as fresh, and much needed, faces in cinema. 

Hopefully, both will continue to create fun and authentic experiences of pure movie magic.

Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at