Note perfect in its depiction of a family slowly edging toward disaster, Tze Chun's Children of Invention balances precariously between horror story and children's fantasy. Yet it's rooted in such unassailable reality that it feels like it's taking place right under your nose.
Elaine (Cindy Cheung) tries hard to be a good mother to her two young children, Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). As a single mother, she's constantly torn between the requirements of making a living and the need to give her little ones the time and emotional support they crave. She's tried to shield them from the desperate straits they've fallen into, but Raymond is old enough and sufficiently observant to know that Mom's in trouble. She sharply tells Raymond that he has to be more responsible, that he has to help her out by looking out for Tina. Raymond takes everything he sees and hears to heart.
The film begins with the family in crisis.
Elaine has been burned by a network marketing company, losing a large amount of money. The family is forced out of their home and takes up temporary refuge as squatters in an unfinished condo, courtesy of a family friend / real estate agent. Elaine works part-time for the real estate agent, but her heart is caught up by the big financial returns promised by network marketers (AKA multi-level marketers, who edge continually into illegal pyramid schemes). Having a fair degree of personal experience with network marketing, this aspect of the narrative made my skin crawl: Tze accurately captures the come-ons, pitches and sales techniques. But he's not out to demonize anyone: the people involved are portrayed, for the most part, as sincere seekers of the American dream.
Elaine is one of them. She's not lacking in education or intelligence, but like a lot of people, she wants to get rich quick so she'll have more time to spend with her family. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, her story takes on a deeper resonance. She wants what everybody else wants, though she's plowing a field that's only quasi-legal.
The marvelous overriding quality about Children of Invention, the thing that keeps it from becoming an angry broadside, is that it's told from Raymond's point of view. He's a smart kid; he recognizes a network marketer's pitch as soon as he hears it, and you can see from the dismayed expression on his face that he knows what it means. He may not know all the details, but experience has taught him that Mom will be out working later than she plans and that she'll soon be swallowed up by business concerns.
At the same time, he's not preternaturally bright; this is no adult in kid's clothing. He thinks he's smarter and more capable than he is. He's just as capable of walking into deep dark trouble as his Mom. Just like his Mom, his good intentions don't mean he'll be spared some heartache, guilt, and regret along the way.
Children of Invention could easily have tilted into utter darkness, and there is an unnerving edge to some of the scenes. That's where telling the story (basically) from Raymond's point of view proves to be a saving grace. When circumstances turn dour, he demonstrates amazing resilience and, yes, wonderfully childish inventiveness, inspired, no doubt, from poring through his mother's network marketing catalog products. His naivete informs this beautiful film to its benefit.
In the post-screening Q&A, Tze said that the story emerged from his own family history; he heard plenty of network marketing pitches through his childhood. The children had not acted professionally before, though they had experience auditioning for Transformers. Though some questioned his sanity as a first-time feature director -- ignoring the show business maxim "never work with children or animals" -- Tze said the children had memorized their lines by the first day of shooting and had a good understanding of the material.
The film screens again tonight at AFI Dallas, and will also be screening at the Sarasota Film Festival this week, Philadelphia Cinefest this weekend, Ashland Independent Film Festival next week, and more festivals to come.