RIDDLE OF FIRE Review: Life Beyond the Screen Requires a Brave Quest

Weston Razooli's feature debut stars Lio Tipton, Charles Halford, Charlie Stover, Skyler Peters, Phoebe Ferro, Lorelei Olivia Mote,

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
RIDDLE OF FIRE Review: Life Beyond the Screen Requires a Brave Quest

There’s something ethereal about Weston Razooli’s Riddle of Fire.

It’s whimsical, but in a rough-hewn sort of way that puts it somewhere in the aesthetic neighborhood of Avalon Fast’s 2022 Slamdance discovery, Honeycomb. Both films exist in a world parallel to ours, but not unfamiliar or unrecognizable.

While Honeycomb chooses a darker direction when compared to Riddle of Fire’s Little Rascals-esque childish escapades, they both occupy a world in which adults exist, but more as impediments to adventure instead of figures of authority. Razooli’s film exudes joy from every delicate 16mm frame, making it the perfect gateway for those weirdo young children looking for representation in a world of high gloss influencers and YouTube celebs.

Right from the jump, Riddle of Fire lets you know exactly what type of film it’s going to be. A trio of naughty kids – Hazel (Charlie Stover), Alice (Phoebe Ferro), and the most precocious of them all, young Jodie (Skyler Peters) – plan and execute an intricate heist of an Otomo Angel, the latest video game console, from a local warehouse. After rushing home to plug in and begin wasting their summer in front of a giant TV, they discover that Hazel and Jodie’s mom, Julie (Danielle Hoetmer), has password protected the TV, leaving them stranded with a new toy and no way to play with it.

Begging Mom for the password doesn’t work, but she decides to give them an impossible task to get the kids off her back: bring her a blueberry pie from the local bakery. Seems simple enough, but this wouldn’t be much of an adventure without a few obstacles to overcome, and our intrepid trio soon finds themselves bouncing from adventure to adventure in search of the solution to their delicious conundrum. It’s a wild journey, filled with danger, accidental abduction, hippie witches, speckled eggs, and a whole lot of rednecks, but they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goal, and it’s a wild ride to witness.

A Cannes 2023 Director’s Fortnight selection, Razooli’s debut feature is a wonder of nostalgic joy for viewers of a certain age. The adventures into which these children find themselves flung come from a time in which kids – myself included – were ordered to leave the house on summer mornings and not to return home until the sun went down. There’s a world of wonder out there that didn’t seem so scary once-upon-a-time, though it definitely should have been, knowing what we know now.

Hazel, Julie, and Jodie aren’t your typical precocious children. They aren’t possessed of wisdom or maturity beyond their years; all of their decisions and the ensuing antics all feel very childish, which lends the film a truly wistful air. These kids aren’t smarter than or more capable than we were, just perhaps a bit less tethered to reality.

Their naturalistic, simple – yet enthusiastic – performances, alongside the numerous supporting characters they meet along the way, make them all feel like people you’d meet on an odyssey like this. There’s peril around every corner, but never quite enough to make us worry for their safety, just enough to give us proper hope that they’ll accomplish their goals.

Working in close concert with his cinematographer, Jake Mitchell (also making his feature debut), Razooli uses the 16mm aesthetic to his advantage to create a gentle look for Riddle of Fire. No matter how dire the circumstances, Mitchell’s soft colors and gauzy lighting schemes remind us that even though we can see ourselves in these characters, this is just a wonderful dream.

The visual aesthetic plays nicely with the Dungeons & Dragons style employed by Razooli as a kind of framing device for the adventure. It feels like a campaign designed by a ten-year-old, with appropriately gauged risks, and it is a delight to live in that world.

A rare Midnight Madness film for the whole family, Riddle of Fire delivers on its promise from the opening text crawl through to the triumphant finale. The young stars are a revelation; they never feel like they’re acting, and while it’s clear at a few key moments that their adventure is heavily scripted – a particularly too-clever run on cereal inspired puns comes to mind – for the vast bulk of the film, it feels like we’re just watching them work out their puzzle from a distance.

A fittingly celebratory ending to 2023’s Midnight Madness selection, Riddle of Fire is an uplifting reminder that there is still magic in the world, no matter how hard outside forces may try to snuff it out. Razooli has delivered a uniquely charming calling card that is sure to become a perennial favorite for weirdo parents looking illustrate to their weirdo kids that there is life beyond the screen, if they are just brave enough to accept the quest.

Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 230. The film opens Friday, March 22, only in movie theaters, via Yellow Veil and Vinegar Syndrome. Visit the official site for more information

Riddle of Fire

  • Weston Razooli
  • Weston Razooli
  • Lio Tipton
  • Charles Halford
  • Danielle Hoetmer
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Charles HalfordCharlie StoverLio TiptonLorelei Olivia MotePhoebe FerroSkyler PetersWeston RazooliDanielle HoetmerActionAdventureComedy

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