The earnest but fatally uneven "An Invisible Sign" opens with an animated sequence depicting an exceptionally bleak -- and decidedly inappropriate -- fairy tale being told by a father (the veteran John Shea) to his daughter, Mona (Bailee Madison), and her guests on her 10th birthday. Not long after the party the father collapses during a jog and ends up a mental basket case. Mona is so traumatized that she embarks on a course of rigorous self-deprivation while embracing her passion for numbers, believing that hitting upon the right ones in the right amount will cure her mathematician father.
A decade later the adult Mona (Jessica Alba), repressed and withdrawn, her father no better, is abruptly thrown out by her mother (Sonia Braga) and given a lead for a job teaching elementary school math in the film's picturesque upstate New York town; we're left to surmise that the mother has just discovered tough love.
Despite total inexperience, Mona is hired and proves to be a terrific, imaginative math teacher, bonding with a bright pupil (Sophie Nyweide) whose mother is dying of cancer -- and capturing the attention of a free-spirited science teacher (Chris Messina). However, some poor casting choices and lousy performances among the supporting cast, plus seriously undeveloped family relationships and an awkwardly contrived ending, torpedo the film's credibility.
The moral of the fairy tale is that love dictates that you give part of yourself away, and Mona's journey teaches her that this is not true. Alba gives such a focused, interior portrayal that she just might have managed to carry the movie had it been better.
Director Marilyn Agrelo won acclaim for her upbeat 2005 documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," about school kids learning more than just dancing in preparing for a citywide contest. But here, in her narrative-feature debut, Agrelo (directing an adaptation of an Aimee Bender novel) clumsily attempts to play jaunty larkiness against somber situations. Ironically, she fails to achieve the necessary bleak whimsy and artistic unity that characterize that animated sequence.
-- Kevin Thomas
"An Invisible Sign." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times