Childhood is a magical time of wonder and fear, mischief and mayhem, and terror and euphoria, and the adventures kids embark upon can often seem akin to a fantasy. Riddle of Fire strives to capture that feeling, blending original weirdness and cinema-steeped imagination for a saga of friendship forged through an odyssey of playfulness and peril. Playing in the Midnight Madness program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it’s a rowdy, ramshackle affair that’s infused with charming adolescent attitude and humor, even if its unnecessary distension somewhat undercuts those qualities.
Weston Razooli’s directorial debut (which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival) is a work steeped in ’70s and ’80s genre fare. Beginning with lyrical spoken-word legends whose subtitle fonts, like its credits, are reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated The Lord of the Rings, Riddle of Fire is like a hothouse amalgam of Tolkien, Legend, Son of Rambow, The Goonies, and other likeminded pre-teen ventures.
Razooli’s use of slow-motion, portentous zooms into close-up, hazy transitional fades, mystical narration, and bizarrely enchanted plot details all aim to conjure up fairy-tale grandeur, albeit spiked with a weirdo modern energy. That’s not a wholly successful endeavor, but when it works, the film gets what it’s like to be a kid in the bright hot summertime, when hanging out, causing trouble, and hatching far-fetched schemes are all that matters, and risking life and limb is nothing when done in pursuit of coveted treasure.
In a Ribbon, Wyoming, that faintly recalls the Shire, a trinity of motorbiking youngsters in balaclavas and sunglasses meet up in a woodland clearing to arm their paint guns. As delineated by the signs on their rides, they are rambunctious Hazel (Charlie Stover), tough-as-nails Alice (Phoebe Ferro), and Hazel’s mush-mouthed little brother Jodie (Skyler Peters), whose dialogue is frequently accompanied by subtitles. Boasting animal-claw necklaces, they’re the Three Immortal Reptiles, and their sights are set on a nearby warehouse, into which they break in order to steal—from a high shelf, and under the nose of a security guard—a box containing the latest and greatest video game system, Angel.
Alas, upon arriving back at Hazel and Jodie’s triangular house, which looks like something out of Hansel and Gretel (or Gretel & Hansel), they discover that the flat-screen TV located in their cluttered, messy living room has been password-protected by mom Julie (Danielle Hoetmer), who’s under the weather and wants the trio to spend their vacation outside.
This upsets the threesome, who’d prefer to while away the hours with console controller in hand, and so a deal is struck: Julie agrees to let them game for two hours provided they first get her a blueberry pie from the local bakery, as such treats were what always cheered her up when she was young. Upon arriving at their destination, however, Hazel, Alice, and Jodie learn that they’re all out of pies, and that the woman who might make them a new one is under the weather at home. A subsequent trip to this individual’s abode results in another quest (for something that might cool her down), and when they cleverly complete their task, they receive the recipe for her cherished desert treat, whose ingredients they swiftly acquire at the local market—except, that is, for a speckled egg, courtesy of a burly stranger who snatches the store’s last carton.
Thus a battle is born between the Three Immortal Reptiles and the Enchanted Blade Gang led by Anna-Freya (Lio Tipton), whose Norse-goddess name is the first indication that she’s more than just your average mortal soul. Anna-Freya is a former Museum of Natural History employee and expert taxidermist who aspires to kill a fabled princely stag on Faery Castle Mountain and who employs magic words to control her minions: brother Marty (Razooli), twins Suds (Rachel Browne) and Kels (Andrea Browne), and bearded cowboy John Redrye (Charles Halford), who doesn’t take kindly to being bossed around by Anna-Freya and suffers the brunt of abuse from Hazel, Alice and Jodie. There’s also Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote), Anna-Freya’s daughter and the gang’s “princess,” who wears a wispy white dress, speaks like a wise sprite and, following her own sneaky disobedience, winds up partnering with the protagonists on their mission.
Lighters, fishing rods, cooking skillets, and bottles of rum are some of the many items that take on a talismanic quality in Riddle of Fire, whose script moves from one incident to another in the sort of free-flowing manner of a child’s spontaneous make-believe story. Razooli’s grainy 16mm visuals contribute to the nostalgic atmosphere, as does a score that melds lutes, harps and chimes with synthesizers and piano (as well as the amusingly deployed “Baby Come Back” by Player).
The result is an endearing hodgepodge mood fabricated from bits and pieces of adolescent memories and beloved movies. The cast’s performances are equally winning, thanks to a strange, compelling mixture of mannered (and occasionally botched) line readings and natural, off-the-cuff interactions. Hazel, Alice, and Jodie resonate as real kids, or at least appealingly unseasoned actors, and their personalities go a long way toward bolstering the material’s R-rated rambunctiousness—replete with the heroes cursing, kissing, and, at one point, getting drunk.
Riddle of Fire situates itself in an ethereal space between waking and dreaming, yet its tone wavers during its midsection, undone by a plot that veers into less-than-thrilling encounters and conflicts. As Hazel, Alice, Jodie, and Petal clash with Anna-Freya and her minions in the forest, and then seek out another speckled egg from a club owner who demands they dance for their coveted prize, the action loses its early liveliness, bogged down by meandering, enervating detours. At 113 minutes, the film would have benefited from a bit of judicial trimming, as well as additional focus on the relationship between its central rogues; Hazel and Alice’s juvenile amour, for example, is a playful thread that’s too sketchy to properly register.
Nonetheless, if it ultimately overstays its welcome (and concludes on a slightly anticlimactic note), Riddle of Fire amalgamates the tangible and the illusory, the innocent and the profane, the sweet and the violent, and the authentic and the cine-fantastic to generally captivating ends. It may be messy, but then, what child’s story isn’t?
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