Toronto: 'Make-Believe' offers charming documentary look at teen magicians
I'm going to review three documentaries I saw at this year's Toronto International Film Festival today, and I'm going to start with the smallest of the three, a movie that didn't even play at the general screening venue, but at the NFB room across the street, which holds something like 75 people.
"Make Believe" tells the stories of several different young magicians who are all training for a Las Vegas convention where they'll come together and compete for the title of Teen World Champion. This is a style of documentary that we seem to see represented often on the festival circuit, so the key becomes how well the individual stories are told. In this case, J. Clay Tweel picked the right kids, and spent the right time with them. He got them to open up, for good and for bad, and the people around them relaxed, and the result is bracing and honest. These are fascinating kids, all of them looking for something that distinguishes them from their community, all of them reaching to magic as a way of defining identity.
On a recent evening when everyone was at home and working all day, Toshi was desperate for some attention, and he decided that today was the day he was going to become a magician. His idea of a magic trick was to stand in front of you, hold up his empty hands, then yell, "CLOSE YOUR EYES!" at you. Once you did, he would run out of the room, noisily dig through is toy shelves, and then run back in to stand in front of you to yell, "OPEN YOUR EYES!" at which point a toy would "magically" appear in his hand. What made it even better was the way he would add a flourish to each of his "tricks" and the pride he took in having fooled us. It was beautiful, and that's the appeal of "Make Believe," watching these kids find this thing that gives them such joy.
Bill Koch is the kid in the picture, this over-earnest meathead midwestern kid who has every advantage in the world and a fierce competitive spirit. Krystyn Lambert is a young, uber-cute girl who is being groomed in the film to be the "Britney Spears of magic," whether she wants it or not. Derek McKee is an awkward kid who comes alive the moment he starts performing these tricks he rehearses. Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana travel all the way from Capetown, South Africa, while Hiroki Hara comes from the most remote rural area in Kitayama, Japan. It's an eclectic group to follow, and the film gives them all ample room to emerge as characters.
Lambert, for example, comes across as a fairly classic overachiever, driven and slightly manic and perfectionist. If this was a John Hughes movie, she'd be the pushy and slightly unlikeable but ultimately vulnerable head cheerleader. She's tough on herself, but the pressure put on her by some of the people in the film (Diana Zimmerman in particular comes off poorly in several of her scenes with Lambert) is to become part of a merchandising machine. Lambert came to magic honestly. It scratched a particular OCD itch in her make-up, and it gave her brain the right sort of puzzles to play with. She came to it young, and now that she's nearing the end of high school and she's become a lovely, curvy young blonde girl, what was once a cute hobby that was for personal pleasure has become a potential meal ticket for a whooooole lot of people, and it's not pleasant to watch.
The two kids I like the most in the film are Derek McKee and Hiroki Hara, both of them gentle souls with almost superhuman focus, driven not by the competition so much as a need to be perfect, a drive to entertain. McKee is this sweet-faced, shaggy-haired kid who looks like he's still growing into his own skin, but he's got magic hands when he starts doing close-up card magic. He practices non-stop, and there are moves he does that dazzle even the adults he knows. But even McKee is flabbergasted by Hiroki Hara, who lives in the middle of nowhere, and who is almost completely self-taught. He's obviously been practicing around the clock since the moment he could stand, and he does card manipulations that most adults wouldn't try, that have the other young magicians standing awestruck backstage. He's a crazy whirlwind little magical Mozart, and the footage of his show is just wonderful.
I wasn't surprised to see Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon listed as producers here. Like their documentary crossover hit, "The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters," this is a great human story first, hung on something that all of us have some opinion on, some relationship to, and I have no doubt "Make Believe" will find some sort of distributor and get a chance to cast its spell on audiences soon.
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