Assuming you’ve even heard of An Invisible Sign — and really, what reason is there for you to have? — it’s probably because you’ve seen the trailer. I want you to forget about that, as it completely misrepresents the film that I’m talking about here, and if you base your expectations on it, you’ll come away sad, in large part because this isn’t the quirky, happy movie that the trailer — and, indeed, the opening scene — promises. This is a darker film than you expect, and if you’re not ready for it, it has the potential to hit you quite hard.
Filmed in 2008 but shelved until 2011, An Invisible Sign stars Jessica Alba as a young woman named Mona, who, at a young age, made a deal with the universe: If it — God, or whatever — would fix her father’s unexplained mental illness, she would give up everything she enjoyed forever. No tasty food without ruining it, no movies, no music; even if she kissed someone, she’d have to rinse her mouth out with soap afterward. She’s now a loner since she decided to stop having friends, and because of this personal decision, she’s finally getting kicked out of her parents’ house.
Soon enough, she has become the teacher of an elementary school, teaching math because numbers are the only thing that bring her comfort in the world. She lied about finishing college, but that matters little in the grand scheme of things. School is hard, she learns, but eventually finds herself adored by some of her students, including a young girl named Lisa (Sophie Nyweide), whose mother is sick with cancer.
The heart of the story lies with this little girl, who reminds Mona of herself when she was young (and played by Bailee Madison in flashbacks when the film thinks it’s important that we see things from when she was much younger). This girl’s life is tragic, and it alone is enough to break some hearts. I know that thinking about it now makes my eyes water a little. And seeing Mona completely unable to deal with it, while also seeing the girl’s perseverance — it’s something that the trailer does not prepare you for.
There’s more to the film than just this, as it’s only one way that its message about becoming okay with who you are is going to get through. There’s a subplot involving a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) who wears a number with a necklace on it representing how well he’s feeling on a particular day — you know he’s sad if he’s wearing a 2, but if there’s a 15, he’s in a good mood — and a romantic subplot that’s completely one-sided given that Mona isn’t looking for any happiness; she still thinks that her father will be okay if she doesn’t allow herself even one iota of joy.
It’s all trying to say something and send a message, which is important, but it’s such a drank and sad experience that unless you want to watch a depressing movie, you’ll want to watch a different movie. It’s not a message that’s rare in the movie world, so I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding a happier one. This one definitely isn’t for everyone, and while it approaches melodrama at times, I didn’t feel like I was ever being manipulated by the story events.
This would all fall apart if it weren’t for some pretty good actors, and while I know Jessica Alba gets her yearly Razzie nomination and is generally considered a pretty face and nothing else, she can be good when she commits to a project and the majority of the hate is undeserving in my opinion. Here, she dulls herself down as much as possible (while trying to capture Zooey Deschanel’s “quirky” look, to mixed results), and carries the film with her acting, not her looks. While this might not be a career changing movie, it’s something that many people need to see in order to convince people that Alba is fine (or go watch the couple of seasons Dark Angel got).
Holding her own as well is young Sophie Nyweide, whose character has had life throw frank knuckleballs the whole way through, but she keeps trucking on. Child acting isn’t supposed to be this good, folks. She shows and evokes emotion, and you really feel for this child thanks to the performance and the situation that the writing presents her with.
When An Invisible Sign doesn’t work, it’s when it feels like nobody is helping themselves, when the characters frustrate us by doing things that make no sense, when the 96 minute running time makes it feel like we’re in too big of a rush, and when the other third grade children get speaking roles, because they’re so bad, especially compared to Nyweide. That might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t really add up to much when I think about how involved I found myself in the story and how much it made me feel.
An Invisible Sign isn’t for everyone. If you aren’t in the mood for a dark and sad — yet still occasionally quirky and funny — movie, then you’ll want to put it aside and watch something happier or funnier. But if you’re willing to invest, or if you want a movie to prove that Jessica Alba isn’t deserving of all the hate (and really hasn’t been for a while, in my opinion), then you’ll want to give An Invisible Sign a watch. It’s a good movie that you might not have ever heard of, and it’s worth the time it takes to sit through it.