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The Globe and Mail

Children of Invention: chasing the American Dream

Tina and her brother figure out how to get by.

3 out of 4 stars


Children of Invention

  • Directed and written by Tze Chun
  • Starring Cindy Cheung, Michael Chen, Crystal Chiu
  • Classification: Not rated

Children of Invention opens April 23 in B.C. only.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Boston, the American Dream is squatting illegally in an unfinished condo development. That's where Elaine, a Hong Kong immigrant on an expired visa, is living with her two young children. She's lost her house to foreclosure; she's lost her husband to greener pastures. What she hasn't lost is her indefatigable work ethic, but a good job is hard to find. So multiple bad jobs, paying little in return, consume arduously long days and nights. This leaves the kids, a boy 10 and a girl 8, to get to school before the doors open, and to return to their make-shift abode alone. Not without a mother's love, but often without her presence, they are the Children of Invention.

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Such is the starting point of Tze Chun's sharply observed picture, an independent film that's all about forced independence. Initially, the focus is on the mother who, unlike her U.S.-born offspring, speaks English with a discernible accent. Cindy Cheung plays her with two distinct faces. The public visage is polite and upbeat, a prerequisite for a saleswoman in a pessimistic climate. Elaine sells everything and nothing - real estate in a down market, health food to the unhealthy, skin care for the aged - which explains why her private expression is constantly harried and worried. Of course, that's the face her children see, at least when they see it.

Tze has a keen eye for detail, and, early on, it's those details that engross us: Elaine's knack for cobbling together a wardrobe of near-respectability; her conducting business on pay phones in malls and in the lobbies of posh hotels; the black-out curtains she hangs in the illegal apartment, lest any tell-tale lights be glimpsed at night; the instant noodles in plastic cups that are the staple of the family diet; the cheery lies a mother tells that an eight-year-old believes but a 10-year-old has started to see through. Apparently, this is autobiographical territory for Tze, and he makes effective use of his familiarity.

The narrative shifts its ground when Elaine innocently (rather too innocently) gets lured into selling memberships to a bogus pyramid scheme, and the law detains her in hopes of nabbing the higher-ups. Now the kids, Raymond and Tina, become the primary focus. Suddenly, their mother is gone. A day passes, the next morning dawns, and the boy takes the lead, foraging for loose change in his mom's closet, then for food on the suburban streets.

Alas, as the youngsters struggle, so does the movie a little, showing the strain of seeking a credible path through the third act. A couple of ill-advised dream sequences don't help; nor does a resolution that feels rushed. En route, however, the child actors - Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu - are consistently endearing, wise without seeming precocious, vulnerable but, like all children that age, far from helpless. Yet these two won't stay children for long. Already, necessity is their mother, and they are well on their way to inventing themselves.

That's sad but, to its credit, the film refuses to absolutely victimize them, and even hints at pockets of inspiration within the sadness. This pioneering family may not prevail, but it will surely endure, and who knows - one fine morning, in a better economy and a brighter world, the squatting might stop and the Dream will come home again.

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