Children of Invention
Directed by Tze Chun¨
Suffering little kids, especially those who lose one or both parents and must depend on the strong, interdependent bond they've developed with each other, are an offensively manipulative narrative device—almost as bad as a murdered dog. So, any movie that centers on such characters has to work extra hard to avoid collapsing into cheap sentimentality. And Children of Invention, the feature debut of writer-director Chun, doesn't work hard enough. Cindy Cheung stars as Elaine Cheng, a single mom hustling in double time in the suburbs outside of Boston to provide for her two children (Michael Chen, moody, and Crystal Chiu, adorable) in the midst of the current economic crisis. She loses the house, and the family is reduced to squatting in a demonstration apartment unit (not unlike Arrested Development's model house); she works a million jobs, from morning to night, while looking for more. Then she disappears, and her kids are left to fend for themselves.
Ok, Children of Invention is in tune with the zeitgeist, but it relies too hard on its conspicuous Relevance and the perseverance of cute children to score its pathos. The movie feels like the sum of superficial signifiers: the kids survive on ramen noodles! Other kids have more toys! The town-skipping father doesn't pay his child support! Added together (editing by director-in-her-own-right Anna Boden), they remain unconvincing, though the film is shot with a cool naturalism, a style that occasionally allows a poignant detail—like the clerk who chides a child for loitering all day in a toy store, playing the demo game console—to emerge.
Children of Invention does boast one compelling aspect: it exposes an underexamined subculture, the crooked world of "network marketing," suburban pyramid schemes that target immigrant communities. Watching Elaine swindle others—people throwing away money they can't afford to discard on get-rich-quick scams—is deeply unsettling, especially as Chun films it so matter-of-factly, and because Elaine does it in good faith: she believes she'll make money, and that her marks will, too. Children of Invention celebrates the strength that these ordinary Americans—or, immigrants—find in poverty, but also exposes the mendacity of the American dream, its phony promise of potential prosperity, and the shysters waiting to take advantage of the desperate. You'd leave the film thinking about how cruel this country has become, if it weren't for those darn resilient kids. God bless their tiny hearts, or something.
Opens March 12