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An Invisible Sign: Film Review

The Bottom Line

Affectless look at a math teacher trying to break out of her shell flunks its bigscreen test.

Director

Marilyn Agrelo

Screenwriters

Pamela Falk, Michael Ellis, based on the novel by Aimee Bender

Cast

Jessica Alba, Chris Messina, John Shea, Sonia Braga, Marylouise Burke, Bailee Madison, Sophie Nyweide, Mackenzie Milone, Ian Colletti, J.K. Simmons

Jessica Alba stars as a troubled math teacher in director Marilyn Agrelo's film adaption of Aimee Bender's critically acclaimed novel.

Whatever it was about Aimee Bender's well-received novel that made this team want to turn it into a film remains invisible in An Invisible Sign. Lisa Rinzler's well-judged, intensely hued cinematography is the only element of any interest whatsoever in this inert dramatic directorial feature debut by Marilyn Agrelo, whose documentary Mad Hot Ballroom was an out-of-the-blue hit six years ago. IFC's theatrical release will define the term token, as VOD will prove the perfect place for curious souls to give this a perfunctory look.

Shot three years ago in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, New York, the picture is like a handsomely constructed house with nobody at home. None of the characters comes alive or has anything engaging to say, while the central concerns of the story, which have to do with mathematics, symbols and people finding their places in the world, are treated in a way that feels both trite and pretentious.

Painfully withdrawn, reticent and lacking in confidence since her genius mathematician father (John Shea) began to go nuts, Mona Gray (Jessica Alba) is cajoled into taking a job as a first grade math teacher despite a lack of credentials. Without a clue of how to proceed, Mona feels her way with some unusual methods while enduring insults from a bratty girl and developing a bond with another student, Lisa (Sophie Nyweide), whose mother is dying of cancer.

Mona's urge to help this game but troubled girl at least has a modest emotional pull, which is more than can be said for her tentative involvement with unappealing science teacher Ben (Chris Messina); when Ben comes on to her the first time and, after kissing him, she says, “I'm not into it. Please leave,” you wish that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, it's not, and Messina's lack of energy and his and Alba's total lack of chemistry make their subsequent scenes arduous to endure.

The same is true for Mona's mania for a numerology system picked up from a retired math teacher (J.K. Simmons), a plot strand the film manages to make register not at all.

Expressing Mona's specific fear of human interaction and general anxiety by overreacting fearfully to even the most minor eventuality, Alba demonstrates a convincing inability to carry a picture by herself; she can't illuminate what might actually be going on inside her recessive character and certainly doesn't evince any affinity for math.

Favoring a view of the material that could be described as whimsical or insipid depending upon how charitable one felt at the moment, Agrelo does not apply the rigor or toughness that might have helped grapple with such key elements such as mental illness, struggling students and the strength it takes for Mona to reverse her natural tendency to withdrawal. She opts for a superficial feel-good approach, which does neither her characters nor the film any favors.

Opens: May 6 (IFC Films)
Production: iDeal Partners/Silverwood Films
Cast: Jessica Alba, Chris Messina, John Shea, Sonia Braga, Marylouise Burke, Bailee Madison, Sophie Nyweide, Mackenzie Milone, Ian Colletti, J.K. Simmons
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Screenwriters: Pamela Falk, Michael Ellis, based on the novel by Aimee Bender
Producers: Jana Edelbaum, Michael Ellis, Pamela Falk, Lynette Howell
Executive producers: Justin Berfield, Rachel Cohen, Daniel Crown, Jason Felts, Stephen Hays, Michael Lesser
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Production designers: Susan Block
Costumer designer: Sarah Beers
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Music: Andrew Hollander
No rating, 96 minutes