Sundance Dispatch: John, Marvelous, & The Holes
A pair of coming-of-age tales surprised at Sundance 2021, in ways both welcome and vexing.
Marvelous and the Black Hole
If past is prologue, Marvelous and the Black Hole will be called “slight,” “light,” and “cute.” These are unfortunate monikers handed out to films that don’t fit preconceived notions of importance, which is just as well, I suppose, since I’m not sure there’s a better way to send casual moviegoers sprinting in the opposite direction than to call a movie “important.” And yet these terms underwhelm as an attempted shorthand, in this case applied to Marvelous, writer-director Kate Tsang’s coming-of-age tale that blends humor and child-like wonder with an abrupt willingness to tackle so-called “adult” issues head-on.
The story is told through the eyes of Sammy (Miya Cech), an adolescent girl who recently lost her mother, and Tsang delivers all the visual trickery that comes with such a youthful perspective. Yet she doesn’t shy away from the depth of grief that losing a parent - and a wife, as is the case for Sammy’s father (Leonardo Nam) - and Cech is more than up to the task of walking the tightrope between juvenile escapism and mature reckoning. The film itself occasionally misjudges that balance, but it nearly always recalibrates, including for an affecting, if somewhat predictable, finale. Marvelous and the Black Hole is not slight or light or whatever other euphemism people may use; it’s just a good movie.
John and the Hole
It’s tough to be truly disappointed by John and the Hole, which to its full credit, prominently features both John and the hole, with the former pre-teen drugging his family and wheelbarrowing them into the eponymous pit. The moody, ambiguity-strewn coming-of-age tale from director Pascual Sisto veers off the beaten path from there, luxuriating in John’s exploration of his newfound freedom - both from physical restrictions and psychological restraints - even as his family simmers 15-feet under. It’s a stop-and-start thriller, a strange tonal two-hander that seems to take pleasure in defying genre expectations. Pascal essentially tells parallel stories - one of a pampered family unexpectedly thrown into crisis, the other of a sheltered boy suddenly liberated - that occasionally intermingle, but that both shine a light on the vagaries of human nature.
The film sputters in its final half hour, though if you still care where it’s headed by that point, you may not be on the same wavelength as Pascal and writer Nicolás Giacobone anyway. I’ll take ambiguity over ham-fisted preaching any day, but even I found John and the Hole too opaque for large stretches. It’s during those times that the film owes a debt of gratitude to Charlie Shotwell for his singular performance as John, both unnerving and endearing (or the closest thing to it when you’ve drugged your family and placed them in a hole). It’s still not clear how or why John dropped his family five yards straight down, but by the end of John and the Hole, I’m not sure I cared.