Film Review: An Invisible Sign

Strictly recommended for those who love their movies quirky, in monstrously large doses.

An Invisible Sign begins with an animated fairy tale, told to the child Mona (who grows up to be Jessica Alba) by her father (John Shea), about a mythical kingdom in which a king decrees that every family must surrender one of their number for execution. One resourceful clan comes up with the notion of each person sacrificing one of their members instead—say, a finger or an ear.

Things don't get much better for Mona, something of an arithmetical idiot savant, in real life, when Dad has a debilitating breakdown and her nutty mother (Sonia Braga) throws her out of the house. Although never finishing college, she lands a job as a math teacher and wins the affection of a sad little student, Lisa (Sophie Nyweide), who has a dying mother. Fellow teacher Ben (Chris Messina), with the necessary patience of a saint, takes a strong interest in the eccentric, socially inept new faculty member.

Early on, Mona announces that her twin obsessions are math and running, two interests which are particularly antipathetic to this critic. Little that followed said disclosure in this determinedly twee film, laced with heavy-handed doses of pathos, changed my basic aversion. Based on a novel by Aimee Bender, the movie is positively besotted with eccentricity, and Marilyn Agrelo's all-too-complicit direction compounds the viewer’s alienation. The obsessive-compulsive disorder of Mona, who makes math-based deals with God and constantly drums numbers on wooden surfaces with her fingers, is matched by that of local hardware store owner Mr. Jones (indie regular J.K. Simmons, who makes, what, 20 films a year now?), her former math teacher who instilled that fatal love of equations in her. He is in the habit of wearing numbers around his neck based on his particular mood on a certain day, which naturally turns Mona into his perpetual stalker. The wackiness just keeps piling on, accompanied by the buzzing hive of computer-generated numbers which constantly surround Mona.

Alba disguises her physical lusciousness with nerd glasses, face-obscuring bangs and old-maid pigtails and throws herself into this quirky role, but you feel the actress' hard work more than any innate, organic and weird connection with the role, half-waif/half-misunderstood genius. (It's the kind of thing that the very young and strange Jennifer Jones might have pulled off.) Messina, always a likeable, grounding presence, does what he can with the only normal character in the film. Emblematic of An Invisible Sign's basic, wearyingly wacky thrust is Marylouise Burke, who brings her patented, predictable daffiness to the role of the school principal who idiotically hires Mona in the first place.