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Review: ‘Make Believe’ Finds Magic In the Teenage Search For Identity And Flair

By  · Published on July 1st, 2011

Magic is like the Schrödinger’s Cat of obscure passions. Or, to put it another way, magic is simultaneously very cool and not cool at all. Similar fields are definitely one or the other… mimes for instance, are never cool. But watching a good magic show can leave an audience in awe wondering how exactly the tricks were done, while at the same time the magicians’ offstage persona often reveals them to be socially awkward, obsessive-compulsive geeks.

So cool and uncool, simultaneously.

Make Believe follows six teenagers from around the world who have immersed themselves into the world of the stage magician. They practice and perform constantly while juggling their “normal” teen lives with varying levels of success. The crux of the story is their involvement in an annual World Teen Magician competition, and the film follows their preparation and experiences leading up to and beyond the event. The six teens come from varying backgrounds and personalities but all share a common love for magic and the art of illusion, and their stories as seen here help prove the maxim above.

Derek is from Littleton and is both the youngest of the group and the least sure of himself. His long, gangly limbs are graceful onstage but work in contrast to the core of his body which is far from animated. His favorite film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, is quite notably about an outcast of sorts who chooses to create a world in his image instead of shoehorning himself into the real one. Derek has few (or no) friends his own age, much to his mother’s regret, and instead spends time with two adults who immersed themselves into the magic game a long time ago. They’re about three feet and a spray-on tan away from being Oompa Loompas, but they help him focus when his confidence begins to waver.

Siphew and Nkumbuzo are from a poor community in South Africa where you’d expect magic to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. It’s a rough neighborhood, but the boys have found an outlet for their goofy charm and energy in a local school for magic run by ex-pats. The boys’ stage routine is as much (or more) charisma than magic, but their enthusiasm and joy as entertainers is infectious.

Bill is from Chicago, and at age nineteen he’s the oldest of the group and the one for whom this will be the final teen competition. As is befitting his “elder” status he’s by far the most confident onstage and off. He’s well respected by his peers in large part due to his accomplishments behind the scenes as well as onstage. Object manipulation is standard magician practice, but while most use playing cards Bill uses CDs and iPods which he’s specially crafted in his garage. It’s an additional level of professionalism and skill that the others have yet to achieve.

Krysten comes from Malibu and offers the greatest dichotomy amongst the teens. She has lots of friends, is active in school politics, and looks more like a cheerleader than a magician. Her real-world normalcy makes her standout in the world of magic, and she plays that distinction to the hilt. She performs in short shorts, and when an elder dame at L.A.’s famed Magic Castle tells her to embrace the “sexy” label she does so without question. But behind the physical appeal is an extremely talented and driven magician who applies the same perfectionist attitude to all of her endeavors.

Hiroki lives with his parents in rural Japan, and he’s the only one of the six to never be shown amongst friends. He rents out an entire hall to practice his show in solitude, and he performs much of his routine outside with only the swaying trees as an audience. The act is filled with a more fluid showmanship than the others and incorporates elements of nature as well as Japanese culture. He’s an emotional young man and finds it difficult to hide his feelings of both disappointment and joy.

The movie does a fine job introducing then moving between the teens as the World Teen Magician competition approaches, and you can’t help but want all of them to succeed. Some of their stories can’t help but be more interesting and/or inspirational than others, but they all offer insight into the personalities required to pursue a lifestyle and career that many people see only as a fun diversion or hobby. There is some suspense to be found in the contest, although there’s no doubt who should win based on the footage shown, and the end result is highly satisfying. But even better than the scenes of magic, loss, and celebration are the times when these awkward and somewhat lonely teens get to hang out together. Their eyes light up and their smiles grow wider as they mingle amongst with the knowledge that win or lose they’re part of a small group that share some very select interests, skills, and traits. They don’t have this kind of bonding in their normal life, and it’s good to see them recognize how special it is (and they are) when they’re together.

Make Believe is the directorial debut of the awesomely named J. Clay Tweel who previously contributed to the brilliant The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters and the interesting Freakonomics. This film is closer to the latter in that parts of the movie work better than the whole, but it still serves as an interesting look at a subculture that most of us only see in the form of polished performances. And there’s nothing uncool about that.

The Upside: The winner actually deserved to win; one of the kids is inspirational; variety of subjects; some of the tricks are cool; minor suspense in final competition

The Downside: Some characters get lost amidst the hubbub of the contest by the third act; ultimately lightweight at times

On the Side: Remember David Blaine? Douche.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.