Subtle but powerful, the ’09 winner of the Independent Film Festival Boston’s Grand Jury Prize in narrative, Children of Invention, paints a moving portrait of the current recession. This first feature film by writer-director and Randolph native Tze Chun stays close to its Massachusetts roots to deliver a stirring story about an American family.
At its heart are two Chinese-American children, Raymond and Tina Cheng. In the opening scenes of the film, they watch their mother, Elaine, move their possessions out of their modest house in Quincy. The police hover nearby. Elaine explains, with an unease older sibling Raymond catches, that the police are there to make sure no one steals their belongings. Her deliberate misrepresentation of what’s actually happening is a recurring theme in the film.
The family is forced to squat in an empty and newly built condominium while Elaine tries to make money in real estate. As the children go to school and subsist on ramen, Elaine succumbs, unwittingly, to a pyramid marketing scheme, and as a result, mysteriously disappears, leaving the children on their own.
Child actors Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu deliver unexpectedly luminous performances as the brother-sister pair, and through both petulant arguments and unspoken affection, portray a sibling relationship defined by their difficulties. Knowing they cannot always rely on their parents, Raymond and Tina depend on each other. Knowing that no outsider could understand their story, they keep to themselves.
Cindy Cheung, who plays Elaine, is to be commended for letting the children steal the show rather than try to take it herself. Her character is left open to the viewer’s judgment—a woman who makes mistakes but does so with the best intentions. It’s hard to imagine her falling so hard for a pyramid scheme, but despite her diligent hard work, she has frailties, and Cheung demonstrates with poise the desperation that drives well-meaning people into scams.
While dealing with immigrant and working-class identity, at the film’s core is the universal experience of growing up. In the course of the story, the children realize that parents, though older and in control, do not always make the best decisions. (The children’s father is out of the picture. Though he says he’s in nearby Providence, Rhode Island on the phone, it’s a lie—he’s moved back to Hong Kong.) Both Raymond and Tina struggle with the desire to trust in their parents and be obedient even while watching them make mistakes.
As the story progresses, the children begin to see through the doublespeak. In the process, they begin to differentiate themselves from their flawed parents. Forced into independence even before their mother disappears, they have no recourse but to grow up quickly, to invent themselves on the fly. The process of self-invention is reflected in Raymond’s interest in making contraptions—spaghetti-spinners, for example, made with plastic forks and a motor—and they resolve to sell the inventions to earn… a million dollars. Which is, they reason, enough money to buy their house back. They take this task so seriously that they dream about money—vivid, implausible scenarios resulting in million-dollar bills being handed to them.
What is perhaps most touching about these plans is that unlike the schemes their mother falls for, the children start with curiosity, ingenuity, and a product, and aim to start from the ground up. Which is, after all, the quintessential American theme.