The magical magic documentary, Make Believe, follows six mostly awkward teenagers as they compete to be crowned Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. And in Make Believe, director J. Clay Tweel does for magic what Jeffrey Blitz did for spelling bees in Spellbound: He humanizes these teenage outcasts, gives their devotion to dorkiness the the sheen of cool, and finds the sweetness in their awkward struggles to find themselves within their magic and use the art to help find a connection with other people. Along the way, they also perform a few exceptional, crowd-pleasing magic tricks.
The kids at the center of Make Believe are an impressive group of teens, each with an almost religious dedication to the craft of magic, eschewing “Gossip Girl” and time with their friends to fan cards and master the art of manipulation. Seventeen-year-old Krysten Lambert is a pretty high-school blonde from Malibu, one of the field’s most promising magicians. She’s way too smart and poised for her age, and unlike the other young magicians in the documentary, doesn’t use magic to shroud her insecurities but to maintain more control over her life. Bill Koch, a 19-year-old magician whose forte is card tricks using compact discs and iPods, is a band geek in another life, but his skills with magic allow him a corner of self-confidence that he demonstrates jubilantly in Make Believe. Eighteen year old Hiroki Hara, who grew up in Japan an hour away from the closest grocery market, spends 12 hours or more alone each day practising his craft and designing his own props. It shows, too; he’s an unreal magician even for an adult, but at what cost to normal relationships? Derek McKee is a 14-year-old from Littleton, Colorado, a sweet kid with an oversized ego trapped inside a mountain of teen insecurities. He spends much of his time with his middle-aged mentors instead of kids his own age, and another five hours a day practising magic rather than hanging out with friends. It’s often hard to tell if that’s by choice or because of a lack of options. Rounding out the contestants are two gregarious South African teenagers, Siphiwe and Nkumbuzo, who combine magic with their love of soccer and their home country, where they fight to rise above the crime and poverty and attend a college of magic. Theirs is a story about more than two rising magicians; it’s about honoring South Africa and climbing out of the slums.
The lives of these six contestants are tidily weaved together to give us a strong sense of each of these individual’s lives before Make Believe turns its focus on the competition at the center of the film, hewing close to the Spellbound template. But the whimsical indie doc formula, which intercuts a few talking-head interviews from leaders in the art like Lance Burton and Neil Patrick Harris(!), makes the film no less enchanting. Tweel takes an affectionate look at the gaggle of dorks, pulling out of each the idea that magic can transform their lives, and at least for a few minutes while they’re up on stage, afford them a level of super-stardom in their community and, for an hour and a half at least, in movie theaters. Make Believe is sweet and rousing documentary, a celebration of both magic and the kids who devote their time to it.
Check out the trailer; it’s irresistible.
Make Believe screened that the Independent Film Festival of Boston.