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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "Make Believe"

Any teenager who has developed a passion for something he or she sees as a life's work has an advantage over their peers with nothing comparable to give them direction on their journey toward individuality and careers. This documentary celebrates a group of teenagers determined to become masters of illusion.

In a documentary debut, J. Clay Tweel directs this unique coming-of-age story centering on five such wannabes as they train for an upcoming teenage magician competition. The stakes are high, if not everything. Only the title, "Teen World Champion," name recognition and performance gigs in the field of their choice.

The international aspect is furnished by Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbozo Nkonyana from South Africa with an act that combines magic with comedic drama; and by Hiroki Hara, an intense youngster whose slight-of-hand with a deck of cards might just give the pros a run for their money.

The others are from different states: Bill Koch, to whom his unusual work with disks and homemade cellphone props is a "last stand" attempt to take the brass ring as he approaches his twenties; Derek McKee from Colorado; and Krystyn Lambert, the sexy goddess of this cast who is already a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, junior division, thanks to magician Diana Zimmerman and her idea for a "Future Stars Week" at the facility.

High School president, Tuba player in her high school jazz band, co-founder of the debate club, volunteer librarian, Lambert is the definition of over-achiever. As intensely absorbed in proving her magician credentials as anyone, one might think something's being compromised.

Oh, the problems of a brainy babe. Her looks are wisely recognized by Zimmerman as the most promising commercial prospect of the contest lot, win or lose. With more regard for lassoing the young beauty into the fold than for what her capabilities are onstage, she gushes as she strokes Lambert's blond tresses, "You could be a real star! The Britney Spears of Magic! I wouldn't bet against it.

In a first act construction, Creel introduces these participants in their parental surroundings by intercutting back and forth across time lines and geographic boundaries, you get an idea of the personalities and their unique styles of magic. But care is taken to withhold their actual act until later, when they arrive at the Las Vegas venue where the annual event is staged. There, he shows us a band of teenagers preparing and handling nervousness and anticipation in their own ways as they meet each other and deal with the juggling act of friendliness and peer competition.

The meat of the story is the competition as we finally see what the acts are and the creative level of the presentations. One of the most revealing part of the entire film is the reaction of three young magicians watching the show from the sidelines and commenting on the degrees of difficulty and originality of their peers' performances. Their "inside" instant analysis is worth more than any of the generalized commentary by Lance Burton, the famous guest who represents all that the contestants want to become.

The journey into make believe is anything but that to the six ambitious individuals with whom we spend this time. We come to appreciate that they are worth setting apart because of that level of discipline which is required for recognition in any individual form of expression. They may not be upcoming actors, dancers or musicians, they may not possess an equal amount of talent on a magician's stage, but their commitments to a goal are no illusion.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Teen-age magician Hiroki Hara
A spectacular performance.

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