Sammy from marvelous and the black hole
Perhaps most remarkable about the film is the respect given to Sammy as a teenage girl. Image: IFFO/Provided
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A magical coming of age film

A ray of pure light entered downtown Ottawa, amidst St. Patrick’s Day pandemonium, with the International Film Festival of Ottawa’s (IFFO) screening of the wondrous Marvelous and the Black Hole. With her feature film debut, Kate Tsang steers us through the familiar coming-of-age formula with powerful finesse, ease, and a level of respect for teenage girls scarcely seen on the screen. 

Sammy Ko is an impassioned adolescent trying — and failing –– to cope with the recent death of her mother. As her violent disobedience alienates her from her family, a new relationship with an offbeat magician works to bring her some desperately needed support. 

Tsang, lauded for her writing on the animated series Steven Universe, leads us into a frenzy of high emotion akin to a lively comic book. Bright colours, a quick pace, and light animation spin you around Sammy’s heart in perfect sync with her moods. 

The cinematography is impressive, favouring character-focused shots against vibrant backgrounds to lean into the cartoonish influence. Even more impressively, the film flows seamlessly between energies as it goes from light to dark and back. 

The grief and sadness never feel ill-suited for the moment. Though it moves quickly, each emotion was presented with depth and significance. The brisk pace also helps to lightly subvert the common coming-of-age structure we all feel we’ve seen one too many times. Each familiar beat is hit just swiftly enough to be effective without feeling trite.

Perhaps most remarkable about the film is the respect given to Sammy as a teenage girl. Her emotions swing like a wrecking ball yet she is never presented as overly dramatic or hysterical. She is never mocked. Marvelous and the Black Hole examines love, grief, and endurance with a beautiful empathy. It’s endlessly refreshing that Sammy’s emotions don’t simply disappear. She learns to cope using magic tricks and an enlivened sense of wonder and Tsang ensures we see her actively work through her hard feelings. Her growth isn’t defined by obedience, but by her own process of healing. 

Tsang provides her young protagonist with agency and true identity. This authenticity is what helps set the film apart within the jam-packed genre of coming-of-age.

The film’s most costly shortcomings come into focus whenever the attention moves away from Sammy. The fullness of her character is a stark contrast to the comparative lifelessness of the secondary ones. 

Her father, sister, teacher, and classmates lean towards archetypal, which initially played into the cartoonish spirit, but eventually created dissonance. Had each member of Sammy’s family, especially, been as well developed herself, this would undoubtedly be one of the strongest teen movies of the past decade.

The IFFO is a special opportunity to see a variety of diverse, affecting, and noteworthy films which may never see wide releases. 

When asked what she loved most about the screening, a passionate audience member said, “I enjoyed it because it’s different from what you would normally see in the big theaters; sort of quirky and different and interesting.” 

But, the house was far from packed and comprised mostly of first-time attendees to the IFFO. Several audience members expressed they were unaware the festival was occurring until they arrived at the theater. To all Ottawans, attending the IFFO is more than worthwhile. 

Supporting this event and the films it showcases is its own kind of magic. Tsang showed us the strength to be found in lightness. Mark your calendars for next year to chase a bit of that wonder for yourselves!