Whenever you bring up time loops as a narrative device - think projects like 'Groundhog Day,' 'Edge of Tomorrow' and 'Palm Springs - the reactions are inevitably split. To some, they add a sense of intimacy to the film, allowing us to resonate with a fantastical scenario and strive for the ideal outcome with the characters. But to others, they're a trope that's been buried in the ground, lacking in originality and often without self-awareness to feel interesting.
For me, I disagree with that "having run it's course" argument; talent and creativity are always innovating and there's no reason why seemingly stale concepts can't still have entertainment value to them. But even I'll admit that Amazon's Studios' newest project, 'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,' wasn't that high on my anticipation list. It looked like the mix of bohemian, overly predictable teen drama and meta-style genre commentary that I had no interest in sitting through for an hour-and-a-half.
That said, I got the chance to check it out, so does the film work? Well, it's a bit complicated, as 'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things' can certainly lean into the overly pretentious, unbearable spiritual commentary side of things. But it was when the film ended that I realized how much I had smiled and how much I had enjoyed a lot of it. It doesn't rewrite the wheel (even if it feels desperate to do so), but the lead duo are wonderful and there is a surprising amount of good comedy and interesting content to soak up.
Mark (played by Kyle Allen) is a high school teenager who, instead of being in his summer school classes, instead enjoys the sights around his town, but in the context of a repeated 16 hours. Somehow, Mark is trapped in a time loop that resets the day at midnight, causing everything to go back to the day before and leaving himself the only one who remembers any of it.
Since entering the loop, Mark has seemingly memorized most of the possible outcomes, passing around the winning lottery numbers to random denizens, driving a steamroller to and from places, and relaying his adventures as hypothetical scenarios to his best friend, Henry (played by Jermaine Harris). One day, Mark runs into Margaret (played by Kathryn Newton), the only other person besides Mark who is experiencing the time loop.
The two begin to appreciate each others company, discussing the manner of their newfound existence and Margaret's interest in theoretical physics. Inspired, Mark suggests they create a map of the town consisting of all the tiny perfect things that happen in this one day. While this proves to be a fun project, Mark and Margaret also try to work out the mystery of the time loop, how it works, and whether it would even be worth it to escape it and move on with their lives.
I firmly believe the opening scene of this movie will determine your enjoyment level. It is essentially one continuous shot from cinematographer Andrew Wehde showcasing what can only be described as Mark's daily routine through the lens of a Rube Goldberg machine (with abundant surprises I don't want to spoil). There's a freshness to seeing someone so locked into an anomaly like this, but more than that, it distinctly establishes what the rest of the movie is; a little bit cocky, but never too good for the audience.
That also extends to our leads and both of them are delightful here. I had little doubt that Kathryn Newton could pull off the kind of subtle heart within the dark humor (see 2018's criminally underappreciated 'Blockers' for more on that), but Kyle Allen was a bit surprising considering I hadn't seen his work in 'American Horror Story.' He's able to be whatever the movie needs him to be, ranging from the charming and goofy everyman to someone able to look beyond himself and just exist in the scene.
Beyond just having terrific chemistry, Mark and Margaret's relationship feels incredibly earned here. This is partly because the film doesn't really care about keeping track of the looped days (it could be decades for all the film knows), but a detriment to the world-building actually works in favor of the central relationship. They have to work up to just talking to one another, let alone actually being honest about their own complexities.
This also extends so some of the film's various loop situations, from laughing at crashing skateboarders to bribing the school's art club to make a replica space adventure. It allows potential schlock of the titular map of tiny perfect things to actually has real value to it. Maybe making it won't get them out of the loop, but in this world that will never understand them (in more ways then one), this can be something that can be theirs and maybe even something more.
That incredibly pretentious line from me leads me to discussing that side of the film as well and I have problems with this script. Here's the thing; in regards to a lot of the film's central ideas (making the little things count, looking to support others instead of yourself, the fluidity and randomness of life being a blessing, etc.), the sentiment overall works. But it feels like there's way too much of it that screenwriter Lev Grossman (The Magicians book series) just doesn't know what to do with beyond "wow, isn't this deep? Aren't we just in hell being able to do all of these things"
That isn't to say there isn't a net benefit to any of that material; part of the reason Mark and Margaret are such lovely characters here is because they get to explore all of the angles of the time loop together and recognize their own emotions as a result, ambitious philosophical discussions included. It's not even the time-honored "teenagers don't talk like this," but more that there's an air of unfocused ambiguity to it, the kind where a million ideas get thrown against the wall, a few of them legitimately impact the characters, and the rest are just fodder to show an enlarged sense of intelligence.
(*In other words, literally any of my reviews: buh-dum-tis)
Aside from that overarching issues, I have some minor plot gripes as well. I can give the film props for kind of subverting the inevitable twist prediction, but without giving it away, the reason for the loop is iffy at best. I know it ties into the characters, they set it up throughout the movie, but still feels way too coincidental, even with the amount of time and the character's skill sets. Plus, I really don't like the last scene that tries to tie one of the story threads up and just feels like its crouching in on the previous, way more emotional scene.
I wouldn't be surprised if 'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things' winds up growing on me, even for as critical as I may sound towards it. Sure, the writing could certainly be better and it is disappointing how often its relatability and uniqueness can be overshadowed by it bigger ideas, but I also can't quite fault it for that.
For better or worse, it knows what it is, it knows the tropes of the genre it has to navigate, and its two leads make the result likeable and mostly sincere. Time loop movies are always going to be those weird, introspective pieces of fiction that get scoffed at by some people, but they can also be a lot of fun in the process. While 'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things' certainly can be too much of the former, it never forgets to be the latter, and I can definitely appreciate that.
Overall, I give 'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things' 7.5/10
'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things' will be available on Amazon Prime on February 12, 2021
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