This review was originally published on May 12, 2011. It is being reposted for the doc's home video release.
Jeffrey Blitz's "Spellbound" is kind of like the "Die Hard" of documentaries. The Oscar-nominated hit from 2002 has kicked off many an imitator over the past decade, in which films could be referred to as "'Spellbound' in an air guitar contest" ("Air Guitar Nation"), "'Spellbound' with junior tennis players" ("Unstrung") and "'Spellbound' with go-karts" ("Racing Dreams"). Just this past week we saw the NYC opening of the "'Spellbound' at a Monopoly competition" film (aka "Under the Boardwalk," which also plays Austin and Anaheim next week) and Wednesday brings the national run of "'Spellbound' with poetry" (aka "Louder Than a Bomb"). Best of all, this weekend we get a film that is possibly my favorite of these competition docs since the original: J. Clay Tweel's "Make Believe," which we can think of as "'Spellbound with junior magicians."
One thing the film has going for it is the age group of its subjects. As with "Spellbound," the best of the comp-doc genre involve kids, usually teenagers. Tweel doesn't capture the pressures of these years as well as Blitz does, especially considering how unconventional the dream of being a pro illusionist is for a young person, but he also benefits from a broader range of personality types and global representation, including a slapstick pair from South Africa and a spiritual kid from Japan. "Make Believe" doesn't depend so much on awkwardness and eccentricity, either, at least not to capitalize on the strangeness of its young competitors. I can't recall any moments calling for laughter at a character's expense.
I also don't see any manipulation, as some filmmaker might do, in forming this or that character as a villain or underdog or what have you. There is some disagreement in my household on this, though. I'm curious if any other viewers would consider seemed overachiever ("Tracey Flick" type, you may say) Krystyn Lambert to be set up as the bad apple in the bunch. The fact that "King of Kong" director Seth Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham have executive producer credit doesn't mean a doc they're presenting has to have its own Billy Mitchell, but this may have you projecting the idea onto a subject by default. Lambert (who would be perfectly played by AnnaSophia Robb in the remake) is merely a stronger personality than the others, and she does appear to have the greatest experience -- if not the greatest talent or originality -- partly due to her close proximity to L.A., and especially Hollywood's famed Magic Castle (actually Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana may be more experienced, since they attend Cape Town's College of Magic).
But that doesn't make her a villain so much as a great contrast against the other spotlighted junior magicians, who are all united in Las Vegas for the annual crowning of the Teen World Champion title. Each subject has the chance of being a favorite of the film audience or the least favorite. At one point Lambert is told to flaunt her physical attributes, being a pretty young girl comparable (according to Magic Castle's Diana Zimmerman) to Britney Spears and Hannah Montana. That kind of appeal can either work for her or rub viewers the wrong way. It also makes the camera come off as liking her more than most. The 19-year-old band geek from Chicago, Bill Koch, who kind of resembles a young Matt Damon and has a clever routine involving CDs and iPods, is also quite a presence. Hiroki Hara, meanwhile, is easily obscured by the gorgeous Japanese forestry he lives amidst. Derek McKee, who says he wants to be the hometown hero, unfortunately may be long overshadowed by some infamous teens from his residence of Littleton, Colorado (the film doesn't address this, thankfully).
It doesn't much concern me that a film like "Make Believe" is overly conventional in its structure, nor is it that big a deal if you can predict which kid wins the contest. The point is in the characters themselves, their stories and their specific acts, all of which are very true to their personalities and passions. "Spellbound" may have some stronger coverage and cutting, but it does not have youths from South Africa affirming that pursuing a magic career (or even hobby) saves them from violent and degenerate alternatives, that love for soccer can be folded into their love for illusion, and that vaudevillian clowning can still bring a large crowd happiness. Even if you're not into magic the doc leaves you wanting more, at least extended footage of the acts of each subject, if not also every competitor. The very little tease of another duo, Japan's Yamagami Brothers, is particularly enticing.
Despite its comparative lack of drama -- especially when you realize the event is not as big a deal as it's made out to be -- "Make Believe" is highly engrossing for a lot of the same reasons "Spellbound" and other great examples of the genre are. A colorful and personable mix of subjects that you care about and root for (and maybe root against, regardless of whether the film forces this out of anyone) is the clearest sign of worth in this type of documentary. But "Make Believe" also really believes in its characters, and that's one of the best things a film can do.
"Make Believe" is now available on DVD.
Recommended If You Like: "Spellbound", stage magicians, "Harry Potter"