Children of Invention

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/26/09 10:28:06

"Nobody Knows: Boston"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON 2009: I am certain that there is no shortage of bad independent films which focus on kids; after all, there are plenty in the mainstream. Having to contend with boutique cinema and festival programmers looking to please grown-up audiences without a studio marketing division to shove them down our throats, they tend to be the victims of savage attrition, leaving only the very good or the material with local or topical interest. "Children of Invention" was shot here, but it's also pretty darn good.

The film opens with Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) being evicted from her Quincy house along with children Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). They've got a place to stay for a few months - the realtor Elaine works for is letting them squat in an unrented apartment - but even though Elaine is studying for her real estate license (and her ex-husband isn't sending his child support from Hong Kong), she wants to get out form under faster, and signs up for a multi-level marketing scheme. One day, she goes out to talk to the person who recruited her and doesn't come back, leaving Raymond and Tina alone in an apartment with no food, no money, no phone, and no idea what to do next.

Though director Tze Chun doesn't reference it in obvious ways, it's based upon his own life in the early 90s, explaining why characters get tripped up by things like pagers and pay phones. Locals may also peg it as not being set in the present by how the characters refer to Somerville as a somewhat disdained suburb. They may also get a laugh from how Raymond solemnly calls Information to ask for directions to Chinatown from Downtown Crossing; I think you can see buildings with Chinese signage from that spot. That's not a blooper, but an illustration of how unprepared Raymond is for this sort of situation, although you've got to know the city a bit to fully get the gag - more than you need to know about being Chinese-American at any point.

That Raymond got far enough to be in that position in the first place is, in large part, to his being determined and inventive. Despite his just being nine or ten years old, Elaine is already telling him that as the oldest sibling, he's responsible for looking after his sister. Michael Chen captures just the right childish sense of responsibility with just a tinge or resentment of how Tina gets to think their father is just 100 miles away in Providence and they may get their old house back. I don't think he ever smiles in the movie, but we can still see that he gets some jury from the inventions he builds out of junk and dollar-store items, and his meticulous planning is kind of adorable. Crystal Chiu is just generally adorable as Tim, full of energy and questions, kind of demanding and spoiled, but so cute that it's no wonder people bend over backwards for her.

The adults are good, too, especially Cindy Cheung as Elaine. The movie is from the kids' perspective, so Elaine is never called upon to explain herself directly to the other characters or audience, but she creates a compelling mix of love, fear, desperation, na´vetÚ, and impatience. We don't see much of any other particular grown-up, but I liked Lee Wong as the great-grandfather and Lynn Mastio Rice as the woman who recruits Elaine into the pyramid scheme; she's obviously insincere in retrospect, but it's not hard to see how she could convince Elaine.

Writer-director Tze Chun does a nice job of putting the movie together. He's got a real handle on how kids act, and he never has to force them to act like little adults in order to tell the story. Instead, he finds ways to make all the Chengs friendly and fallible. He and DP Chris Teague create a semi-comfortable atmosphere as they follow the family in their familiar (if difficult) everyday life, and then do a great job of disrupting it when things take a turn for the worse.

It is, to an extent, akin to a smaller-scale version of Kore-Eda's "Nobody Knows" - fewer kids, a more obvious potential safety net - but that's not a point against it. Its story is enough its own to be worth a look, and the kids are pretty impressive, too.

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