Films with child protagonists present a unique tonal challenge. If overly saccharine whimsy can alienate an adult audience, having precocious kids delivering mannered performances can seem too stylized and divorced from reality––what, say, Wes Anderson has a skill for, many others do not possess. With his debut feature Riddle of Fire, director Weston Razooli tries locating the balance between extremes to uneven results. On paper, this is a kids’ fantasy, action-adventure film, yet it’s difficult to discern the precise audience to whom it may appeal.

Rabble-rousing rascals Hazel (Charlie Stover), Alice (Phoebe Ferro), and Jodie (Skyler Peters) spend their summer vacation zooming around Ribbon, Wyoming, on dirt bikes. They carry paintball guns and beaded necklaces as members of their self-created “Reptiles” gang. One day they steal a new video game console from a local factory but are unable to run it because Hazel and Jodie’s mom has password-protected the TV. She’s bedridden from a cold and will trade them the password if they can bring her a blueberry pie from the local bakery to make her feel better. 

After a series of mix-ups, the kids decide to bake the pie themselves and acquire all the ingredients––except a speckled egg. At the local grocery store, a single carton remains but is snatched up by one John Redrye (Charles Halford). They beg for an egg; he refuses. Rather than go to another grocery store, the kids swear to get the eggs that Redrye has and follow him home. What then transpires is an elaborate adventure that plays out in the mountains of Utah and involves a poaching ring and a taxidermist cult––with some magic thrown in for good measure.

How the kids end up in the mountains is exceptionally contrived yet a credible proxy for the manufactured set-ups in the video games they clearly admire. There is also a parallel to classic kids’ adventure tales, old English verses serving as clues and a quest narrative. Riddle of Fire is freely imagined and does put the kids in several potentially perilous situations. Suspense is derived from the film’s tonal uncertainty: is this fantasy or realist? When one character points a gun at another, there is a feeling that anything can happen, the film unbound by any internal or external logic. If this approach might be liberating for the filmmaker, it leads to a viewing experience of bizarre fascination rather than emotional investment. 

Even so, Riddle of Fire is a triumph of independent filmmaking: Razooli––who writes, directs, edits, costume-designs, and also acts in the film––raised money over three years by individually pitching hundreds of investors and shot across 20 days. Performances by the children, with flubs and mumbling left in, are quite impressive considering their lack of formal training in the profession.

Despite being a modest production, Jake Mitchell’s beautifully grainy 16mm cinematography makes the considerable outdoor footage and nighttime scenes pop. The slightly muted, ’70s-style color-grading and widescreen framing afford a cinematic sheen on scrappy budget. Perhaps most memorable is the synth score, attributed to six composers and companies. Razooli clearly has an eclectic taste in music; the finale, a long montage with the kids, is scored with the main theme from Cannibal Holocaust.

Riddle of Fire has some of the tell-tale hallmarks of a debut feature: it’s much too long, its performances are a bit awkward, the tone inconsistent. Yet it marks a tremendous showcase for Razooli, his varied talent across many fields. One imagines this is the kind of debut that will likely have major Hollywood studios lining up with wads of cash, asking him to direct their next family tentpole.

Riddle of Fire screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Yellow Veil Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome.

Grade: B-

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