For all their amazing feats, athletes, even those of ferocious competitiveness and incredible and finely honed individual skill, sometimes evince a lack of joy, perhaps because their profession is dictated to some degree by body shape and size, pedigree, or simply the fact that it was drummed into their head long ago that their self-worth was entirely tied to this game or that. For me, that’s why amateur sports — particularly something like college basketball, where rivalries often span generations — possess such a special allure. There’s an innately human joy in bearing witness to someone doing something they truly and deeply love, no matter the money, and also do it well — especially if they’re a youngster. And that joy is on ample display in Make Believe: The Battle to Become the World’s Best Teen Magician, a superlative new documentary that radiates an absolutely positive energy.
Of a piece with 2003’s Spellbound and 2007’s The Kong of King: A Fistful of Quarters (no surprise, since it’s executive produced by Seth Gordon, the man behind that hit documentary), Make Believe puts a death grip on one’s attention not because of any grand understanding about the allure of magic that it imparts, but because these are bright if somewhat differently focused kids with a depth of insight and a remarkable amount of self-awareness. Ergo, it’s rewarding to listen to them talk about their interest in magic, and how it makes them feel.
As with any number of other comfortable, more conventional teen narrative features, the dramatic arc here tracks a few months of practice leading up to the teen-classification finals of the prestigious World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, sponsored and endorsed by various organizational bodies and world-famous magician Lance Burton. Of the five subjects on which the film focuses (one is actually a pair, from South Africa), there’s not a rotten apple in the bunch. Hiroki Hara, from a small village in Japan, has a strong affinity for nature, and utilizes rocks and leaves in his act. Seventeen-year-old rings expert and Magic Castle Junior Club member Krystyn Lambert, from Malibu, is one of those preternatural teens who seems to excel at everything. Chicago native Bill Koch, on a year’s sabbatical from college, manufactures many of his own props, including for a complex illusion involving mock iPods. The youngest interviewee, Derek McKee (above), may also be the most touchingly unguarded and eloquent — which is saying something, since all of the participants are quite candid, including a few bewildered siblings or adult caretakers.
The winner of the Best Documentary Prize at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Make Believe could be more comprehensive and detailed with regards to its putative subject of inquiry, certainly. There’s really only one sort of behind-the-curtain tidbit, in which the ins and outs of “split fans” (also seen above) are explained, using a deck of cards. More about some of the certain tricks would have only increased an appreciation for the skill (and in particular finger dexterity) required to pull them off. Unspoken or more deeply explored, too, is the interesting fact that a good number (though not all) of the participants seem to come from broken or single parent homes. While understandably no kid would necessarily be keen to discuss the details of a messy home life, investigating this a bit, along with other surface similarities, would have provided a greater illumination of the type of personalities that find themselves drawn to magic.
Still, watching Make Believe, one’s heart sings, caught up as it is in the dreams and aspirations of these talented kids. It’s a reminder, too — removed from the harsh glare of peer judgment — that all the kids with the quirkier interests and hobbies in high school were probably the coolest, and stand a better chance today of making their own unique way in the world.
Housed in a plastic EcoTech Amaray case made from 100 percent recycled material that doesn’t sacrifice any sturdiness, Make Believe comes to DVD presented in 16×9 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. Its supplemental features are an interesting mixed bag. Character profiles give a bit more biography on the movie’s interviewees and subjects, but 90 seconds of material from Make Believe‘s Los Angeles Film Festival presentation (billed as a Q&A) is a yawn, and waste of space. Four minutes of extra interview material spotlighting Lance Burton and other professionals talking up their livelihood is revealing, again, insofar as the articulate nature of many of these gents.
There’s also a six-and-a-half-minute performance from Kyle Eschen, a sardonic youngster, and three-and-a-half minutes of deleted scenes stowed away as an Easter egg (toggle right after scrolling through all the other options on the extras menu), in which Neil Patrick Harris and a curious cat each make striking impressions. Far and away the best bonus feature, though, are the 10 magic tutorials the disc offers up, set to three different skill sets. To purchase the movie from its web site, click here. B+ (Movie) B- (Disc)