At Malibu High School, Krystyn Lambert looked like many of the girls you'd expect to see on the sunny campus: blond, thin, pretty. Still, she always had the sense that she was profoundly different from her peers — a feeling that stemmed mostly from her love of magic.
"I was that smart, nice, kind of weird magician girl," said Lambert, 19, last week during an interview in Hollywood near the Magic Castle, where she often performs. "With magic, no one has any idea what you're doing, so it really removes you from not so much acceptance, but just knowledge. You can't go to your friend at school and be like, 'Oh my goodness, I was up so late last night trying to figure out how to do this back palm [card trick] that's really tough.' They don't know."
The dedication that goes into her magic act is evident in "Make Believe," a documentary that follows six young magicians (including Lambert) from the U.S., South Africa and Japan as they prepare to compete for the title of Teen World Champion at the prestigious World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. The film, which is a part of the documentary competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, screens Thursday and Saturday .
Blending their personal stories with their on-stage acts, "Make Believe," shows the teenagers tirelessly practicing magic, creating new tricks, illusions, costumes and props. Two South African boys, Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana, are students at the world-renown College of Magic in their country. There, they hone their skills before performing for admiring onlookers on the dusty streets of their neighborhood. For them, magic has meant hope — a unique hobby that has kept them out of trouble and allowed them to travel to the States.
"I was the same as them when I was their age," said professional magician Lance Burton, who presides over the Teen World Champion competition. "For me, it was a positive thing. My mom always said she never ever had to worry about Lance because she knew he wasn't out getting out into trouble, running the streets and doing things he ought not to be doing. He was always in the basement practicing magic."
That type of obsessive devotion can also be alienating, though. One young man featured in the documentary, Hiroki Hara, hails from a remote Japanese village where he spends his days by himself working on his act in a rehearsal space.
"One of the most interesting things that I learned is that magic is an art form where you have to spend a lot of time perfecting the craft, which often means being by yourself," said J. Clay Tweel, who directed the film, which is currently seeking distribution. "I think that's why kids who can be awkward like magic, because you can do it by yourself. But the only way to really get good and truly practice is to interact with other people."
Of all the subjects in the film, Lambert seems the most comfortable on stage. That's probably because she's worked toward her dream of becoming a magician since age 12, when her mother gave her some simple magic tricks, including a set of sponge balls . She was soon admitted to the Junior Program at the Magic Castle, where she was able to showcase her act and get feedback throughout her adolescence.
"I really feel like magic has been the right blend for me, because it's everything acting is plus you've got the technical aspects," she said. "I designed my own costume and pieced together my own music and lighting and design — it was all within my creative control. And I feel like it's very intellectual– magic history knowledge is very prized within the community."
Lambert hasn't seen the documentary yet, though she's well-aware she may come across to some as a "psychotic overachiever." But she doesn't mind. She's changed a lot since the film began shooting in October 2008, she said. And for the first time in her life, she said, she's found a place outside of the magic world where she fits in – college.
"People are very academic and motivated and they give a darn," said Lambert, who recently completed her freshman year at UCLA. "One of the more interesting adjustments has been, 'Oh my goodness, I have friends? People want to hang out with me and spend time with me?' Which sounds so silly — like, 'Krystyn, come on.' But it's so. UCLA has been fabulous socially."