Harry Houdini once said, "the greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin." The teenage magicians in director J. Clay Tweel's docu-trifle can definitely relate. One hails from a town so small the nearest market is an hour away. Others could use some magic to escape more insidious adolescent traps like shyness and poverty. Whatever their circumstances, each spends the movie working towards the same goal: winning the career-making teen competition at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. Watching these talented young men (and one woman) practice and perform their routines approaches the sublime. What keeps this otherwise big-hearted doc a bit earthbound is that Tweel adds no twist to the current and increasing tiresome "quirky people compete in a competition" documentary sub-genre. The movie, which nabbed the Best Documentary award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is still a charmer that will do okay theatrically before conjuring up more coin in home-viewing platforms.
Like (too) many recent docs, Make Believe rolls on duel tracks. The subjects prepare for the big event while their world is explored and the notion is advanced that their unusual pursuit addresses some deeper issue. Fourteen-year-old Derek McKee is a shy kid from Littleton, Colorado; holding ping pong balls between his fingers and fanning decks of cards allows him to please people and get noticed. For pretty, blonde, Krystyn Lambert, magic is an extension of her need for control. The fastidious and overachieving Malibu resident workshops at the iconic Magic Castle and has thoughts of superstardom planted in her impressionable head. Equally driven is Chicago native Bill Koch, a beefy 19-year-old influenced, possibly to an unhealthy degree, by his father's edict that "the goal is excellence, nothing less." The most interesting would-be Copperfields require a plane ticket to meet. South Africans Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana have a combination magic and comedy routine that keeps them off the dangerous streets of Cape Town. Tweel's breakout character is 18-year-old Hiroki Hara. His home environment in Kitayama, Japan offers so little that he is obsessed with magic and practices eight hours a day. Nonstop finger exercises allow him to manipulate playing cards like a god, and Tweel utilizes one of Hara's sleight of hand tricks to create an effective prologue.
With documentary makers vigilant in their quest to find people with odd interests preparing for a climatic test, Tweel at least picked something thrilling to watch. Make Believe reacquaints us with the pleasure of being willfully, joyously fooled. In a world of ever more complicated gadgets, simply making a card disappear can have your jaw dropping in childlike awe. Tweel, who edited this film and was an assistant editor on the videogame doc The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, takes every opportunity to show the teens practicing or performing a trick.
Watching even the most tossed-off gag is worth whatever shortcomings Make Believe has, including its lack of real drama. The doc's final stretch takes place at the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas as each teen performs on stage for a panel of expert judges. Except for a surprising screw-up by one entrant, the cordial tone doesn't cede much ground to suspense and we're not particularly invested in who wins. For better or worse, the fun comes from these terrific kids and their delightful magic—competition and broader developmental issues be damned. What Tweel does best in Make Believe is convey a sense of hope that the world contains at least six teenagers not playing videogames and dreaming of reality show stardom. These youngsters work incredibly hard and have accomplished something rare and difficult that brings happiness to everyone. Whatever else the movie tries to tell us, that is its biggest, most satisfying trick.
Contact: Steven Klein email@example.com (323) 639-3454, (347)878-2052
Director: J. Clay Tweel
Producer: Steven Klein
Running time: 88 min.
Release Date: May 13 NY, May 27 LA