At the annual World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, young illusionists compete for the title of Teen World Champion, a feather in the cap of any aspiring David Copperfield, Doug Henning or Criss Angel. There's a Malibu blonde angling for stardom at L.A.'s exclusive Magic Castle club; a perfectionist Midwesterner forgoing a college scholarship in order to hone his skills; a soccer-mad Siegfried-and-Roy duo from Capetown; and most compellingly, a shy but wickedly talented Japanese kid.
Ever since Spellbound's success demonstrated the appeal of real-life suspense, documentarians have scoured the earth's convention halls for the next geeks-under-pressure hit, leaving no subculture unmined, no competitive nerd-child left behind. Dutifully, this by-the-numbers portrait zigzags from Southern California to South Africa to follow six competitors as they practice their sleight of hand and their showmanship, amping up anticipation over who'll walk away with the top prize. But by closely following a three-act template---introductions, followed by assorted hardships and conflicts, and finally the big event---Make Believe eagerly (and predictably) fulfills rather than transcends the expectations of the genre. First-time director J. Clay Tweel oversells the importance of both the Vegas event and of magic in general---you'd think he were filming a spiritual movement rather than hidden-ball tricks. His wide-eyed subjects do make magic happen---but that has less to do with illusion than innocence.
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