Some movies rely on explosive action sequences and eye-popping visuals to make an impression. Others are more successful in their subtlety. “Children of Invention” is a prime example of the latter, painting a timely portrait of economic woes and the enduring spirit of children.
The debut feature film from writer-director Tze Chun follows the Cheng family and their struggle for a normal suburban life outside Boston. Elaine (Cindy Cheung) is a divorced immigrant balancing a number of jobs to provide for her two children, Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). Elaine is forced to drag them along to her many business ventures, and they live in one of the houses her real estate agency is trying to sell.
The Chengs live day to day, paycheck to paycheck. But when Elaine becomes embroiled in a pyramid scheme, life for her and her children slides even farther downhill. One night, Elaine doesn’t come home. Raymond and Tina can’t get in touch with her, and no one knows the children are home alone.
Though both are scared, Raymond puts on a brave face to provide for his sister. They venture into Boston, attempting to find food, any word of their mother’s whereabouts and a bank where they can obtain money their grandmother sent them. Raymond is a budding inventor, and he hopes with the money from their grandmother, he can make his creations a reality and use them to provide for Tina.
“Children of Invention” was an official selection at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and has garnered a slew of awards at other film festivals, and rightfully so. At times, “Children of Invention” doesn’t even feel like a fictional film. It is so real, so honest that you feel like you’re peering through a window into the lives of a real family, taking the children’s unexpected journey with them.
It’s a quiet film. There are no hugely dramatic fights, no over-the-top emotional meltdowns surrounding the family’s misfortune. But that just makes it all the more engrossing. Chun undoubtedly has a future in independent filmmaking. His depiction of a darker side of Boston fittingly sets the tone of the second half of the film.
Chun’s understated slice-of-life style is so affecting here, as are the nuanced performances of the three leads. They are all so believable you don’t think of them for a second as characters in a movie. They’re just people.
Cheung is excellent as Elaine, so determined and so frustrated, so hopeful and helpless at the same time. Chen and Chiu are rising stars in the making, giving some of the best performances by child actors I’ve seen in recent memory. Child actors can be challenging to work with, especially in films like this with such somber subject matter. But Chen and Chiu don’t just recite lines and look cute. They really act.
Poignant, moving and beautifully executed, “Children of Invention” is a must-see.
“Children of Invention” opens today in New York and Los Angeles. To learn more about the film, visit www.childrenofinvention.com.
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