Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 18 May 2009
Source 35mm print
Reviews Children of Invention by Victoria
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Raymond and his little sister Tina, the children of Elaine Chang, are used to fending for themselves. But when their mother is enmeshed in a pyramid scheme that runs afoul of law enforcement, the children are truly abandoned. Children of Invention is the caring, but small and slow film about what happens.
Director Tze Chun has a beautiful eye for real, naturalistic detail. Filming in and around Boston, he captures the banal everydayness of its city streets and its mostly unspoken collision of cultures, Asian and American. By far the best part of Children of Invention is the performances of the child actors. They are beautifully naturalistic, with no over-polished cutesyness or oversimplified motivations to sully the realism. With their subdued, sad demeanor, the kids hold this slight film together.
We spend much of the film’s first half on exposition, building the relationships between these two children and their mother. Tze Chun seems careful to show that Elaine’s gullibility for pyramid schemes is almost, but not quite, justified by the unfair and unforseen financial straits she’s been left in. But other than the small, everyday tensions and arguments within the family (incidents nonetheless filmed with a sensitive and astute eye for real family dynamics), there isn’t much at stake. It isn’t until Elaine is taken from her children that there is any risk of peril in the film.
The kids handle their situation with a heartbreaking sort of maturity. Raymond has a bank account full of birthday money, which Elaine has been honorable enough not to borrow against. He hatches a scheme to walk to the bank, which is in Chinatown, cash out his account, and use the money for both food and their own sort of scheme to sell his playful inventions, making enough money, they hope, to buy their foreclosed house back. It’s the children’s utterly believable performances that really raise the stakes. Rather than being wide-eyed, melodramatic cutie-pies in some urban hellscape, they are simply young children lost in a big city, and that prospect is frightening enough. Yet even with such tension, Tze Chun doesn’t up the drama—at this point, to a fault. With a little assistance from their senile grandfather, who lives in Chinatown, the children do, in fact, make it to the bank, get the money, and return safely home, and eventually, are reunited with their mother. Though photographed and guided with skill, Children of Invention leave the viewer wishing the director had taken a few more risks.
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