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In the world of documentary filmmaking, there is no shortage of audience-friendly "competition" documentaries, likely because the drama comes already built in; the filmmakers behind these docs need only fill in the spaces with compelling subjects to follow. Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, The King of Kong, Air Guitar Nation, Hands on a Hard Body—name a niche hobby, skill or talent and there's probably a documentary built around it. Now, we can add Make Believe, a documentary about amateur magicians competing for the title of Teen World Champion at the annual World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, to that ever-growing list. Though the movie never really strays from the expected formula, it is compelling and sweet and special enough that it deserves to be seen.
The film follows six amateur magicians on the way to the World Magic Seminar: there's Derek McKee, a shy, quiet 14-year-old who only feels comfortable around people when he's on stage doing magic. There's Krystyn Lambert, the overachieving blonde girl from Malibu with laser-like focus on perfecting everything in her life—especially magic. Hiroki Hara is a high school senior living in a Japanese village with no cell phone reception and an hour away from the nearest market, who is skipping his graduation to compete in the tournament. Bill Koch from Chicago is in his last year of eligibility for the competition and sees this as his last chance to win. Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana are two friends from Capetown, South Africa, attending a prestigious magic school and eager to bring their funny, high-energy stage show to the United States. The road to the competition is intercut with interviews with the kids, their families and a host of professional magicians, on hand to discuss the difficulty of certain tricks and what magic has meant to them.
That question—what does magic mean to you?—is what is at the heart of Make Believe. For Hiroki, it's a means of communicating that everyone can understand; for Derek, it's the only way he can feel comfortable; for Krystyn, it's a passion turned into something else for her to master. Everyone involved in the film truly loves magic, and that's so much of what makes it so sweet and special—there is not an ounce of cynicism anywhere to be found. This isn't one of those documentaries that walks the line between celebrating and mocking its subjects; the kids aren't meant to seem like freaks for being obsessed with something like magic. Make Believe loves its subject and its "characters," and loves that its characters have found something that they love. It's the kind of movie that makes you feel good without forcing any "feel good" emotions down your throat, and that's more rare than you might think in modern movies.
If I take issue with any element of Make Believe, it's that it doesn't always know what it's trying to say—or, more accurately, that it doesn't say enough of what it wants to say. We understand why these people love magic, but not really; we understand their relationship to magic, but not really. There's enough here so that the movie works, but there are times throughout the movie where its themes feel underdeveloped. Maybe it needed more time with the kids away from magic so we could know them better, or maybe there could be less repetition about how much they love magic and more exploration of why that is. I suppose it's to the movie's credit that I liked it enough to be left wanting more.
The copy of Make Believe sent by the studio for this review was a screener and does not reflect the finished product; as such, I cannot comment on the audio or video quality. Also, there were no bonus features, but, again, screener.
Make Believe is a good movie—pleasant, optimistic, filled with neat magic tricks and likable, nice people. It's not going to achieve any kind of new classic status, because it's not quite as well realized as some other recent docs and lacks any real larger-than-life personalities (I'm looking at you on both counts, King of Kong; incidentally, Make Believe is produced by KoK director Seth Gordon). But it is worth seeking out, if only because it's nice to be in the presence of such passion and enthusiasm for 88 minutes. The kids in Make Believe are a reminder of why we must pursue the things we love, and how we fell in love with them in the first place.
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