‘Riddle of Fire’ Review: A Sentimental Debut Buckles Under the Weight of Its Fancy

Making the pie should have been easy. The recipe calls for the usual ingredients: flour, sugar, lemon (both zest and juice), blueberries and an egg. But the parenthetical after the egg complicates matters. “Preferably speckled,” it reads. In truth, any egg would have been fine. But Jodie (Skyler Peters), Alice (Phoebe Ferro) and Hazel (Charlie Stover), the precocious trio at the heart of Weston Razooli’s fanciful debut feature Riddle of Fire, are not only novice bakers — they’re also children. So what should have been a suggestion becomes a mandate.

The search for the speckled egg is the crux of Razooli’s film, which renders the American West (it’s set in Wyoming but was shot in Utah) as a landscape baited with obstacles. There’s a painterly quality to the director’s depiction of the Great Plains state: Billowing white clouds drift across the powder-blue sky, their path only interrupted by the snow-capped peaks of mountains in the distance. The shortgrass prairie, a mix of burnt orange and desaturated green, looks straight out of a dream. The sharpness of the tree leaves summons their yellow undertones.

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Razooli’s style is admirable. Shooting on 16mm film, his American landscape, similar to the one Sean Price Williams depicts in fellow Directors’ Fortnight selection The Sweet East, inspires wonder and appreciation. Nature is animated by Razooli’s mix of eye-level and ground-level shots and a bouncy sound design by Garrard Whatley. Riddle of Fire bears similar aesthetic markings to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, another film structured around adventuring children. But there’s a preciousness to the younger director’s approach to his material that pushes our admiration increasingly toward exasperation.

Riddle of Fire tries to capture the extraordinary way kids experience the world, but the results border on twee. It’s hard not to think of Margo Jefferson’s useful analysis on including children in plays when considering where this movie goes wrong. “The balance between instinct and knowledge is hard to maintain. The audience doesn’t want to feel the child is just the author’s beguiling little stand-in,” she wrote. “When writers overidentify with their child characters, both innocence and experience get cloying.” Jodie, Alice and Hazel — with their precocity and unrealistically pointed wit — too often feel like these kinds of children.

The film opens with a heist. Desperate for a new video game, Jodie, Alice and Hazel decide to steal it from the manufacturer’s warehouse. Razooli choreographs the scene, which includes hiding from an unsuspecting guard and slipping into the crevices between boxes, with confidence and humor. It’s a worthy introduction to the makeshift gang, who secure the goods and race home on their bikes. Their plan isn’t fool-proof, though. Once home, the kids eagerly unbox the game and connect it to the television. Just as they are about to sit back, among their towers of treats, they realize they don’t know the password to the TV.

So begins their adventure to find the password. After begging Jodie and Hazel’s bed-ridden mother (played by Danielle Hoetmer, the character has a cold) for access, they reach a deal: If the kids can find her a blueberry pie (which her grandmother used to make when she was sick as a kid) then she will give them the password and grant them two hours of uninterrupted screen time.

Although Razooli manages to pull some interesting moments out of his three young actors, most of the performances are clumsy. Part of that comes from a disconnect between the director’s reverence for childhood and the reality of being a kid. Jodie, Hazel and Alice frequently make jokes and comments that adults would find cute or charming. This turns them into props for ideas — about youthful innocence and misbehavior — rather than allowing them to become lived-in characters. The performances end up verging almost on caricature.

The quest to find the speckled egg causes the children to follow the members of a group called The Enchanted Blade, whose leader, Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton), is a witch. Riddle of Fire moves from the children’s town into the surrounding woodlands, where they run into Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote), Anna-Freya’s daughter. Three becomes four when Jodie, Hazel and Alice team up with Petal to get an egg.

The initially compelling adventure begins to feel like an endurance test when the children find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations. The set pieces get longer and more indulgent, the genres Razooli is experimenting with — heist, adventure, comedy — clash instead of complement each other. And Riddle of Fire starts to feel like a compilation of distracting gimmicks instead of a genuine story.

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