Ryan Findley
MFF Review

“Make Believe”

By - Sep 22nd, 2011 04:00 am

Hiroki Hara, teenage magician.

It’s been awhile since I watched a documentary. The last one I tried to sit through was about the financial industry collapse, and before that, I tried very hard to watch Michael Moore’s filmography. I couldn’t do it. Documentary filmmaking is not supposed to preach. At least to my (admittedly provincial, pedestrian) taste and thought, documentaries are supposed to document. Maybe that’s too simple. Maybe I’m missing some meta-thing about documentary filmmaking. That’s possible. But it’s been awhile since I’ve watched a documentary, and even longer since I enjoyed one. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed Make Believe.

Make Believe follows six teenage magicians as they participate in the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, competing to be declared Teen World Champion. J. Clay Tweel‘s direction manages to avoid exploiting or romanticizing his subjects. While there are lessons that can be drawn from this film, Tweel does not attempt to push them on you. The ambiguous nature of all human endeavor is left in its natural state. These are kids competing in a high-stakes competition, and this is well understood. Tweel doesn’t push for breakdowns the way we’ve grown accustomed to in the age of reality television, but he doesn’t hesitate to show them as they are, either. And several of them really, really want to win.

The film is billed as a “coming of age” story, but that’s a bit of a stretch. The film is a slice of time around a major event, but I’m not sure that any of the subjects can be seen to have grown up in any significant way. Certainly, each of them has a distinct experience at the competition and a different outcome might have changed where they were six months later, but they remained essentially the same people.

There were two things that struck me as truly notable in the film. One, stage parents everywhere are a little pushy and completely unaware of what their children actually think and feel. While the parents in Make Believe are nothing compared to ballet moms or former pageant queens, it’s clear that the vast majority of the parents we meet expect their prodigy to do well. Failure is not an option.

And yet, when the words of the parents’ are contrasted with the words of the kids, it’s clear that the adults don’t really understand what the kids feel about what they are doing. Whether it’s the desire to amaze people, a way to interact, or a calling that’s almost religious, each of the teens gets something different out of the experience of being a magician, while all of the parents express the same sentiment; they want their child to be the “best.”

The second particularly notable element of the film was how Tweel managed to make this point with nothing but a few clips and cuts. There is no voiceover, no ham-handed attempt to beat the audience over the head with the point that even the most well-intentioned parents don’t really understand teenagers. Instead, the message was a natural consequence of watching the footage. Tweel’s touch is a light one, and he knows how to let the people he’s filming speak for themselves.

The young magicians come from all over the world, they all have distinct magical styles (and you do get to see quite a bit of really fun trickery) and they all have different reasons for both being there. Tweel’s feather touch coupled with the genuinely compelling stories of these teens make Make Believe a joy to watch.

Make Believe, produced by Steven Klein, Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon and directed by J. Clay Tweel, will have four showings at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival. Make Believe will be showing as the opening presentation at the Marcus Ridge Cinema at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23. It will also be showing at the Landmark Oriental Theatre at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 25; at Marcus North Shore Cinema at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, and once more at the Landmark Oriental Theatre at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 29. Full schedule and online ticket purchasing can be found at milwaukee-film.org.

Categories: Movies

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