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 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,” and VOD will prove the perfect place for curious souls to give this a perfunctory look.
Shot three years ago in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., the film is like a handsomely constructed house with nobody at home. None of the characters comes alive or has anything engaging to say, and the central concerns of the story — mathematics, symbols and people finding their places in the world — are 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Painfully withdrawn, reticent and lacking in confidence since her genius mathematician father (John Shea) began to go nuts, Mona Gray (Jessica Alba) is cajoled into taking a job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 on how to proceed, Mona feels her way with 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 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 lack of chemistry make their 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 fear of human interaction and anxiety by overreacting fearfully to the most minor eventuality, Alba demonstrates an inability to carry a film by herself; she can’t illuminate what might be going on inside her recessive character and 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 feels, Agrelo does not apply the rigor or toughness that might have helped grapple with such key elements as mental illness, struggling students and the strength it takes for Mona to reverse her natural tendency to withdraw. She opts for a superficial feel-good approach, which does neither her characters nor the film any favors.
Release date Friday, May 6 (IFC)
Cast Jessica Alba, Chris Messina, John Shea, Sonia Braga, Sophie Nyweide, J.K. Simmons
Director Marilyn Agrelo
Producers Jana Edelbaum, Michael Ellis, Pamela Falk, Lynette Howell
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes