Invisible Sign
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An Invisible Sign

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One of the most important functions of the independent film is experimentation. It offers a platform for new auteurs to investigate the boundaries of their burgeoning careers, playing with the parameters that define cinematic style. For more seasoned filmmakers the Indy opus can provide a change of pace, a means to try different artistic directions than they typically employ. The vital importance of independent movies extends beyond the talented individuals working behind the camera. With an increasing frequency many well established actors are becoming involved with Indies in order to stretch their creative wings taking off in ways unexpected by their fans. ‘List actors have even gone as far as drastically reducing their usual mega million dollar price tag working for compensation as low as the meager union scale just to be involved in something different than they usually do. All of this is admirable and vital to the growth of the cinematic arts but there is a down side to any form of experimentation; more fail than reach their goals. This is in no way intended to deride those efforts that do not succeed; the new heights of the artform are built on the foundation of these failures.

Still, it is regrettable to watch a group of talented people not achieve their goals. In the case of the recent independent film ‘An Invisible Sign’ a new direct combines with a seasoned cast to create a flick that collapses under its own weight, unable to meld the proper elements of comedy, romance and drama. The one thing that does cry out to be noted is this was an honest attempt at taking a humanistic story in a new direction. After spending a significant portion of my life watching thousands of movies I have seen my share of really bad ones but there is something that differentiates this from that regrettable pack; the honesty of the try. The people involved in the construction of this film all come across as dedicated, truly looking for a novel pathway to explore a familiar story. Albeit, there are some twists provided that is enjoyable, even rather fresh, but they are insufficient to keep the film on track. The audience most likely to appreciate this film as fully as possible includes the true aficionado of the craft willing to look beyond the short comings to see the potential that is put in place for all involved.

The main protagonist of the film is Mona Gray, played at different ages by two talented actresses. As a child the role is handled by Bailee Madison, best known for her recent stint as a boy trapped in a little girl’s body in the popular Disney tween sit-com, ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’. Her face might also be recognized by her substantial appearances in numerous independent movies. Here she plays a girl traumatized by events that scars her life at an early age. When her father (John Shea) is afflicted with a debilitating psychological disorder that renders him an empty husk of his former self Mona undergoes a drastic turn for the worse. Mona radically moves away from any semblance of normality. The only aspect of self imposed emotional isolation is the study of mathematics. This becomes her refuge, the only tether to the world. This is compounded a bit later in life when her mother (Sônia Braga) tosses her out of the home. This is an exceptionally difficult character to portray but for an actress barely in double digits of age it is remarkable how well young Ms Madison deports herself. This is one performer of the Disney studio system to pay attention to. Her career is off to an excellent start as demonstrated by the emotional integrity of this performance. Ms Madison provides a strong foundation for Jessica Alba to pick up the damaged character as a young woman. As a teenager Alba began her career as an action star in ‘Dark Angel’. From there she largely split her participation between sexy ingénues and roles requiring acumen in physical comedy. Now Alba is a mother and is naturally looking to expand her talents into more emotionally involved parts. Sporting an oddly appealing yet bookish set of long bangs Alba takes Mona into adulthood as a profoundly broken young woman. Her love for Math has flourished into the basis of a career teaching her favorite subject to young students. She attempts to use the subject to help her students through their own personal tribulations employing her fascination with numbers to provide the tools they need to cope with life. Adding to the pressure to rejoin humanity arrives on the scene in the guise of the school’s science teacher Ben (Chris Messina) forming the basis for a mutual attraction. Even Mona’s way of coping is touch by an unusual amount of quirky affectations. Her mentor, math teacher Mr. Jones (J.K. Simmons) is somewhat bi-polar who publically notes his current state of mind by wearing a number around his neck reflecting a numeric scale with the values increasing with the degree of positive mood. The kids in her class provide just too much undeserved misfortune that the typical audience can bear. Between mothers dying of ocular cancer to outright bratty behavior, the makeup of the students in the class is direct out of central casting archetypes. The girl with the terminal mother, Lisa (Sophie Nyweide) reminds Mona of herself and the pair bond with the young girl becoming the requisite teacher’s pet.

This is the first feature length film for director Marilyn Agrelo. While the effort is substantial the results display a need for refinement. There is a discrepancy between the personae projected by Mona on screen and that garnered through her narration. In the voice over Mona cones off as more confident than is evident in her portrayal on screen. This could have been attributed to a stronger self image in her internal dialogue but that superstition requires foundation not established within the context of the story. This is also demonstrated in a somewhat disjointed transition from young Mona to her adult incarnation. The film required more connective tissue to hold its themes together, fundamentally the movie had a degree of tenderness and humanity to make you start watching but it comes across as a string of pearls rather than a cohesive film. Another aspect that will certainly improve as the filmmaker matures in her craft is the dissolution of the narrative in the third act. There were several elements planted in the first act that did not manager to remain properly nurtured so that they are not able to lead the audience to a satisfying conclusion. True to the nature of an experiment this opus fell short but is established Agrelo as an interesting filmmaker with a lot of untapped talent just waiting to blossom. I look forward to watching as this career branches out to greater things.

Posted 11/03/11

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