Thrive in the uncomfort zone.
Things aren’t going well for Sammy (Miya Cech). Her mother recently passed, her father (Leonardo Nam‘s Angus) is dating (Paulina Lule‘s Marianne), and the resulting anger has fully consumed her. Where her older sister Patricia (Kannon) loses herself in an immersive videogame world to absorb her time as therapeutic distraction, Sammy finds peace only in destruction. And why not? Dad’s always working, homelife has replaced her mother with Marianne, and the only time she believes she’s even noticed or heard is when she does something bad enough to force them to stop what they’re doing and look. Except that only makes them angry, starting the whole cycle over again. Angus finally says enough’s enough. He gives Sammy a choice: spend summer in a college course or boot camp.
Writer/director Kate Tsang‘s feature debut Marvelous and the Black Hole proves a semi-autobiographical look into the psychological tumult of a teenager standing on the edge of oblivion. Like most kids her age, Sammy acts out because she knows she can. There’s a line that she’s fleshed out enough to know where the limit is, but at a certain point toeing it becomes harder said than done. Maybe she’s stepped over it before and suffered the consequences. Maybe she decided those consequences weren’t that bad and thus moved the line further out to conjure the same reaction as before. Eventually, however, a reckoning becomes unavoidable. Because despite knowing camp is the last thing she wants, Sammy’s rage is almost willing it into existence with destruction rapidly devolving into self-destruction.
An alternative option therefore enters the equation with as much potential for causing her downfall as her salvation. Meet Margot (Rhea Perlman), an accomplished magician who mostly performs for children. She happens to be in the college’s bathroom stealing toilet paper while Sammy is playing hooky from her introduction to small business class (taught by a very forgiving Keith Powell). Sammy does her whole rebel shtick with attitude and cigarettes only to find Margot isn’t so easily deterred. The latter drags the former to her latest gig, impressing her with some cool, smile-inducing tricks (not that she’d admit it). It’s not quite a friendship yet, but Sammy can’t ignore the affect an adult that’s not trying to patronize or punish has. Maybe Margot can provide a safe space.
There’s a catch, though. Not telling her family about Margot opens the door for them to find out themselves. And while Sammy is initially able to juggle drowning out lectures during class with learning magic, fun has a way of winning out. It’s not like it isn’t productive fun either. It’s merely unsanctioned. So, every missed class brings the moment when the school calls her father closer. Every step forward in Sammy’s emotional healing is thus also a step closer to an inevitable explosion. What could have been a conversation becomes rendered into an excuse. Progress gets wiped away and everyone suffers the consequences since this latest failure demands that everyone look inward. No more videogames. No more dating. No more magic. It becomes all or nothing.
Tsang does a wonderful job keeping the emotions authentically raw along the way, never shying from the pain Sammy is experiencing as her flipped-upside-down life is seemingly being turned right-side-up by everyone but her. When things are moving that fast, it’s tough to stay grounded and open. The character sees everyone else’s coping mechanisms as a betrayal and systematically breaks them down (wittingly or not) so they can become as miserable as she feels. It leads to glee in the face of darkness and fear in the face of understanding. Sammy craves the outlet Margot has provided and almost believes it will be ruined by the others’ inclusion since they’ve already “ruined” her grieving process too. The question becomes whether she’ll realize the truth before it’s too late.
Sammy isn’t the only one learning to adjust either. We may not spend as much time with Angus and Patricia, but we can see the weight of their burdens too. The same goes for Margot, her own tragic backstory hiding in the background until it can be revealed in a way that allows Sammy to finally stop thinking she’s alone. Sometimes those who are experiencing the same trauma are the last people who can break you from your isolation. When it’s an outsider who engages and reacts out of a desire to help that’s not clouded by obligation, however, it’s not as easy to disregard the potency of their message’s content. What seem like “empty” pleas to stop from family are blueprints to heal from Margot.
Both Cech and Perlman deliver resonant performances in a sort of before and after juxtaposition. Margot used to be where Sammy is right now, and she overcame it by channeling her rage into something productive. Sammy sees Margot as too together to believe she was ever in her shoes, so trust becomes a hard-won endeavor that’s only eased by the gradual revelations of a life more harrowing than her own. Once those avenues open, though, anything becomes possible: even accepting the joy of others. Because the moment Sammy can remember her mother with happiness rather than sorrow is the moment she can leave Patricia and Angus’ desire to move forward alone. Everyone recovers at different speeds and with different catalysts. And the pain is both universal and necessary.
courtesy of Nanu Segal