For anyone who’s ever yearned for something out of reach, obsession isn’t a consciously made decision so much as an intrinsic personal necessity, an internal beast that underlies every choice and motivation until satiation has occurred—or, if applicable, death. Make Believe focuses on six adolescents who already know this life truth. Pulled from every corner of the world (Chicago, Malibu, Japan, Colorado, and two from South Africa), these vibrant youths have all found passion in the performance of magic, going through astonishing, painstaking efforts to establish themselves in a business where perfection is key, down to the space of a millimeter. Nothing less than an art form, magic tricks require hundreds of hours of fine-tuning before they can seamlessly be revealed to audiences, and the illusion of effortlessness is as pivotal as the illusions themselves being performed.
Taking note from the excellent The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (on which director J. Clay Tweel served as producer and editor; also, that film’s director serves as an executive producer on this one), Make Believe details the intensity with which these individuals commit themselves to their cause, detailing their family lives, popularity at school (or lack thereof), and successes until now, all leading up to the climactic competition at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, where the best of the best are selected to perform in front of judges (who will select a short list) and an audience (who will determine the final winners). Despite the collective charm of the performers, these sequences suggest relatively bland molds into which their respective stories have been poured; a longer running time might have allowed for greater, more harrowing nuance.
Though finely polished and consistently charming, Make Believe wavers in maintaining a larger theme to hold the proceedings together, a particularly noticeable trait here given the performers’ own levels of absorption. Magic begins as something of a metaphor for life—possibility, identity, thinking outside the box—only to quickly trail off into the realm of what could just as easily be weekly show-and-tell fodder, leaving the film with little more than dramatically mundane “Who will win?” suspense to run on. The profound, almost Herzogian pathos seen in The King of Kong feels watered down, the likely result of more subjects necessitating less time dedicated to each; the chosen preference of breadth over depth stunts what could have been, and a “Six Months Later” denouement only partially fills the void. It’s easy to appreciate the drive these kids possess, but we never quite feel their burning passion.