'The Invisible Boy' ('Il ragazzo invisibile'): Film Review

(c) Indigo Film
Structurally a mess, but refreshingly character-driven.

For his his Italian superhero movie for kids, Oscar-winning director Gabriele Salvatores ('Mediterraneo') casts homegrown stars Valeria Golino and Fabrizio Bentivoglio alongside newcomer Ludovico Girardello.

A superhero film for kids set in the windswept city of Trieste, Italy, The Invisible Boy (Il ragazzo invisibile) is an attractively shot hybrid of U.S. genre elements and more European touches. Directed by Oscar-winning Italian director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo), who made one of Europe’s best millennial children’s films with I’m Not Scared (2003) and dabbled in science fiction back in 1997 with Nirvana, this Boy looks at a kid who’s bullied at school and wishes he could become invisible, only to then find out he actually can. Starring impressive newcomer Ludovico Girardello in the title role, alongside Greek-Italian star Valeria Golino as his constantly worried mother, this didn’t set records locally late last year but nonetheless performed solidly enough to warrant a sequel, set to shoot in the spring of 2016. The Seattle Film Festival also recently showcased this European Film Award from Young Audiences winner, which was released in France July 15.

Michele (Girardello), or Mickey, is a round-faced 13-year-old boy with a huge mop of unruly, dirty-blond hair and a strong desire to impress his petite and angelic-looking classmate, new arrival Stella (Noa Zatta). For the upcoming Halloween party at her house, Mickey’s mother, Giovanna (Golino), has given him enough money to buy a superhero costume. But two class bullies (Enea Barozzi, Riccardo Gasparini) force him to hand over the dough and to make matters worse, he’s then humiliated at the party because of his last-minute, no-budget superhero getup from a Chinese store and a video on his smartphone that suggests he’s obsessed with Stella.  

From the early going, screenwriting threesome Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo (the trio behind the successful if decidedly adult-oriented thriller The Double Hour), make sure audiences understand Mickey is a bit of an outsider but also, essentially a good kid going through the growing pains of someone his age (think a younger Peter Parker, or Dave, the nerdy lead from Kick-Ass). His complex love/hate relationship with his mom, who’s a policewoman, is believable despite being only very briefly sketched, while the absence of his late father, also a cop who “saved people,” is referenced early on but thankfully isn’t hijacked for melodramatic purposes later.

Locked into the bathroom at the party, Mickey wishes and then discovers he can actually become invisible. The protagonist initially thinks his “superpower” is linked to his $5 superhero costume, which leads to a comical scene when the outfit comes out of the washer a couple of sizes smaller. Some early experimenting, which of course includes getting back at his bullies, is played for light comedy. But things become more complicated when the pint-sized protagonist suddenly re-materializes just as he’s spying on girls in their locker room at school, where he’s entered naked, since floating boys’ clothes would’ve freaked the girls out -- though it turns out that the sudden appearance of a naked boy in their midst freaks them out plenty, too. The mix of coming-of-age and superheroes-try-out-their-gifts tropes is neatly balanced here.

But after the setup, the film enters calmer waters for too long, with several subplots, including one in which several kids go missing and a louche-looking police psychologist (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) gets involved, taking way too much time to put all the necessary elements in place. Another colorful supporting player, Andreij (Hristo Jivkov), a blind drifter who looks like Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, has also been hanging around Michele’s school. He’s finally able to explain the boy’s superpower’s Russian connection to him, which is shown to audiences in a color-saturated, green-and-blue-hued flashback. But the sequence runs on for so long it starts to feel like an extended, DVD-only version, while it also comes too late into the proceedings to allow Mickey to understand and use his gifts fully. This is because almost straight after the revelation, the film moves aboard a -- what else? -- Russian submarine for the somewhat perfunctorily staged finale.

Despite the film's structural problems, the human relationships -- not always a forte of the superhero genre -- ring true, even if one particular plot twist forces audiences to reconsider the behavior of several characters in the film’s final reel. And it helps that Girardello holds the screen with ease, with the young newcomer equally believable as a bullied schoolboy and a thoughtful young teen who might actually be worthy of the powers bestowed on him. Golino projects worry and warmth in equal measure and is the first among equals of a solid supporting cast.

Unusually special-effects heavy for a film from continental Europe, Salvatores’s latest features the usual reliable work of Salvatores's regular cinematographer Italo Petriccione, which beautifully integrates location work, studio interiors and top-notch chroma-key work that helps sustain the suggestion that Michele is invisible for those around him. Editor Massimo Fiocchi also occasionally cuts back to Girardello’s face even when no one can see him, which is done smoothly and without any confusion and makes sure audiences stay with the character throughout. Other special effects shots are also solid, with the notable exception of one late-in-the-game explosion that feels strangely cheap and underwhelming when it should literally blow everything out of the water. And as befits a European film, the effects are mainly there to aid the narrative and characters, rather than simply crowding them out, though whether this'll be true for the sequel as well remains to be seen.

Production companies: Indigo Film, Rai Cinema, Babe Film, Faso Film

Cast: Ludovico Girardello, Valeria Golino, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Hristo Jivkov, Noa Zatta, Assil Kandil, Filippo Valese, Enea Barozzi, Riccardo Gasparini, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ksenia Rappoport

Director: Gabriele Salvatores

Screenplay: Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo

Producers: Carlotta Calori, Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano

Executive producer: Viola Prestieri

Director of photography: Italo Petriccione

Production designer: Rita Rabassini

Costume designer: Patrizia Chericoni

Editor: Massimo Fiocchi

Casting: Francesco Vedovati

Sales: Pathe

 

No rating, 101 minutes

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