Tze Chun’s debut takes a legacy of American Dream myths regarding industrious immigrants and sets them provocatively against the financial misconduct of our times. Newly divorced and her home foreclosed, Elaine Cheng (Cheung) falls into a direct-marketing pyramid scam to earn money fast, while squatting with her two kids in an empty condo. Her son, Raymond (Chen), grows increasingly distrustful of Mom’s scheming, but he’s prone to his own entrepreneurial illusions. The preteen would-be Edison withdraws what little family funds remain to create and sell makeshift inventions, thinking they’ll earn enough to buy back the house.
Off-kilter families are a dime a dozen among American indie films; what sets the Chengs apart from most Sundance-fare clans is that their eccentricities are less informed by audience pandering than by a genuine sense of sociocultural distress. But the film tries too hard to showcase its sense of living on the edge: Scenes are cut to a spastic rhythm, preventing them from registering much deeper than surface level. Hardly any light is shed into the Ponzi subculture, much less Elaine’s fascination with it (Cheung’s unfocused performance doesn’t help). Children of Invention seems furiously scribbled in shorthand, undermining what it has to offer in contemporary resonance.—Kevin B. Lee
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