Film Review: Children of Invention

Heartfelt but dramatically tepid tale of two kids who must fend for themselves after their single mom goes missing.

The loss of childhood illusions and of youthful naiveté looms large in this first feature by the Chicago-born Tze Chun, whose drama about a struggling, single-mom immigrant takes place in the Boston suburbs where he was raised. A prolific maker of shorts for the festival circuit—his "Windowbreaker" was an official Sundance selection in 2007, as was Children of Invention in 2009—Chun was one of Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film" three years ago. For his full-length debut, he doesn't play it safe: Great, large chunks of his feature are carried on the backs of young actors Michael Chen, then 11, and Crystal Chiu, then eight, who plays a little girl of about six.

The risk pays off, in that Chun does get memorable, admirable performances from the two. And while Chen, the son of noted author Da Chen, and a dancer by training, betrays some actorly mannerisms, the precocious Chiu turns in a pure, authentically naturalistic performance. With someone so young, of course, one might be tempted to think, "Well, she's just being herself," but that's a lot harder to do than it sounds. Squabbling believably, Chen and Chiu have the body language and shorthand vocalisms of genuine siblings, and as any director who's worked with child actors can tell you, Chun deserves mighty kudos for getting them to that point.

Yet by the time the two actually become the film's protagonists, the movie is more than halfway through, having begun as a different tale entirely. The shift is jarring, in a way that doesn't appear intentional, and the story becomes as diffuse as the flat and dully lit cinematography.

The semiautobiographical story begins as the tale of struggling Elaine Chang (Cindy Cheung), a divorced immigrant from Hong Kong who came to the U.S. for college and stayed on with an expired visa. Her deadbeat ex is out of the picture, and Elaine's just had her home (filmed at Chun's actual childhood home) foreclosed on. To scrape by, she shows houses, unsuccessfully, for a friend's realty company, and has lost what little money she had after being suckered by a multi-level marketing scheme. That she soon gets involved in another feels as forced as the horror-movie girl who goes inside the scary basement even though the audience is screaming, "Don't go in the basement!"

Chun's own family, the director has said, repeatedly joined such Ponzi networks, which might justify her perplexing behavior in his own mind, but the Elaine he presents is too much a cipher for us to understand why she'd subject herself to another whipping that way.

Things go wrong, and Elaine doesn't return one night. Since she and the kids are living surreptitiously in an unfinished condominium's model apartment, Raymond and Tina can't just go to the police—social services might take them away. On their own and with little food in the house or money to buy any, Raymond hatches a plan to sell pathetic little "inventions" to raise cash.

By the time the kids take over the tale, the movie begins to resemble the landmark 1953 indie Little Fugitive, in which a seven-year-old, tricked into thinking he's killed his practical-joking brother, takes the el to Coney Island and makes food money by redeeming deposit bottles. Children of Invention follows that thematic path of kids trying to survive like adults when circumstances put them out on their own. But that's only half the movie, or less, and the truncated story of a well-spoken, college-educated, presentable young woman who inexplicably keeps falling for scam artists is left as unfinished as the building she and the kids live in.