At one point in “Make Believe,” the mother of the aspiring 17-year-old magician Krystyn Lambert describes her daughter as finding a home in magic since “it’s a little world of oddballs.” Ordinarily, Krystyn wouldn’t fit the profile. Compared at one point to Britney Spears for a combination of looks and talent, the blonde from Malibu who serves as student council president at her high school wouldn’t appear to be an outsider, but in fact she’s clearly set apart in her drive.
J. Clay Tweel’s documentary tries its best to suggest otherwise, but “Make Believe” isn’t so much about a group of teenagers trying to find their way in the world as it is about the fact that they already know where they’re going. As older magicians such as Lance Burton and Ed Alonzo (best remembered as the Max’s resident illusionist on “Saved by the Bell”) explain throughout its 90-minute running time, the dexterity to perform split fans of cards and sleight of hand with ping-pong balls only comes with time, which incidentally is the one thing these kids haven’t had.
Still, the best of the best congregate every year in Las Vegas to compete at the World Magic Seminar, an event that brings out young magicians from across the globe, six of whom are profiled by Tweel before the third act gives way to a traditional competition doc. Whether the kids are from Japan, Cape Town, or Chicago, they not only find a common language in performing, but support each other and are supported by their families, some of whom are more than happy to allow their brood to forgo college plans, at least for a little while, to pursue magic.
The unexpected result is a film that’s actually less about generating dramatic tension about who will be crowned Teen World Champion or whether the subjects, all charismatic even without carrying around a deck of playing cards in their back pocket, will actually be able to make a career of it, than it has to do with the community that’s formed and the infrastructure in place to allow them to develop their skills away from the outside world.
In South Africa, Siegfried and Roy have sponsored a College of Magic for the past 20 years where we meet Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana, two teens who perform magic to escape the daily crime that plagues their streets. Likewise, Derek McKee, the youngest of the bunch, is taken in by the shopkeeper at a local magic shop in Littleton, Colorado to hone his craft and confront his personal shyness. Of course, Tweel milks the inherent warmth and surprise of seeing adolescents discover something they can own for themselves for the first time and then finding out that others share their passion, but there’s a possibly unintended yet interesting subtext of how insular the magic community can be and how it struggles to expand.
Although the film literally goes to great lengths to show how international a community it is, “Make Believe”‘s most fascinating sequence isn’t when the young magicians are on stage, but off of it at the World Magic Seminar where it isn’t lost on the audience that the event shares a marquee with Engelbert Humperdinck.
when the camera catches Magic Castle Jr. program founder Debra Zimmerman exalting Japanese sensation Hiroki Hara’s performance and the camera catches the normally poised Lambert wear a variety of expressions on her face from forced pleasantry to frustration and possible disappointment over her own performance as she’s made to wait awkwardly by the stage door. (Within the film, it arrives after Zimmerman suggested Lambert could be a superstar back in Los Angeles.) It’s hard to decide if Lambert was just caught off-guard since the film’s cinematography adheres pretty strictly to having a central focus, but it’s both a reminder that despite their age, these teen performers belong to a very adult world.
The scene is a rare glimpse at something that isn’t entirely positive and promotional about magic in “Make Believe,” and it would probably serve the film better if it allowed for more – after all, there’s surely some interesting territory to cover about young people drawn to a craft that’s based on mystery and deception, which is handled here in only the most kid-friendly terms. Yet taken on its own, “Make Believe” is entertaining enough purely from sharing in the joy of its stars, making sure that something permanent and good remains even in a medium where most everything is meant to disappear.