Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 29 April 2009
Source 35mm print
Reviews Children of Invention by Katherine
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
There is a small moment in writer-director Tze Chun’s feature debut Children of Invention that goes something like this: on a family outing to a generic mall, single mother Elaine Cheng stands with her children and watches a coin disappear down a plastic wishing well. Her eight-year-old daughter, Tina, is transfixed; her ten-year-old son Raymond is markedly more disinterested, wearily regarding his mother instead. It’s a moment that nearly captures the rest of the film in miniature: a mother doing her best, a son beginning to see the cracks. Even the disappearing coin carries significance, echoing Elaine’s detrimental involvement in a succession of pyramid schemes. But there’s no feeling of forced symbolism to the scene; it works just fine as a thumbnail sketch of a tired family at the mall. There are moments like this throughout Children of Invention, a film that comes alive through the honesty and richness of its detail. Both kitchen sink real and lyrically beautiful; Chun’s freshman effort is a remarkably graceful meditation on family, disappointment, and hope.
The title refers to Raymond and Tina’s plan to market a series of their own inventions as a means to make money for their struggling family, and the conceit works surprisingly well. The script avoids the potential pitfalls of the premise, never resorting to its more maudlin or cloying possibilities, and often finding the humor in the children’s situation. The impressive child actors, Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu, are up to the challenge of carrying the film. Discovered via an audition for a deleted scene in Transformers II, the pair has great chemistry. Chen’s Raymond, the protective and sometimes sweetly indulgent older brother, rings endearingly true, and Chiu proves a fine little comedienne. Cindy Cheung also gives a strong performance as Elaine, a mother at the end of her rope who retains our sympathy even when she drops the ball. Cheung’s understated turn is the sort of work that is sometimes undervalued, but it’s essential to the success of this picture.
Children of Invention is a film both human and humane, and Chun seeks to make us understand his characters rather than judge them. Elaine allows herself to be blinded by her desperation, Raymond is childishly reckless, and his father is painfully absent, but no one is vilified. Even the young social worker in the film, who might have been used simply to generate conflict, is a full, funny character instead, with actor Kieran Campion providing a small gem of a performance.
Though technically a holdover from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Children of Invention felt like a perfect match for IFFB. The Boston-set film offers an affectionate but realistic view of the city (A great only-at-IFFB moment from my screening: a derogatory reference to “a one room apartment in Somerville” bringing down the house. The house being the Somerville Theater, of course.), and more than that, it typifies the kind of film that one goes to festivals for in the first place. Here is a skillfully told story with heart, and one that we haven’t heard before, a moving dispatch from the margins of city life.
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