Riddle of Fire 2023 Movie Review
It is a well known fact that growing up is a trap. In Weston Razooli’s Riddle of Fire, premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it seems as though adults exist only to make things difficult for kids who simply want to play. But Hazel (Charlie Stover), Alice (Phoebe Ferro) and Jodie (Skyler Peters) are not in the habit of giving up on their plans; in fact, they take on every difficulty as a challenge, an adventure for them to prove their cunning and bravery.
The film playfully adorns its low-fi, 16mm aesthetic with the flourishes of fairy tales, stories of forest creatures, witches and spells, and loosely adopts their structure as the three friends embark on an epic quest to retrieve… a speckled egg. This may sound annoyingly affected and contrived, an irritating vision of childish fun, but saving Riddle of Fire from too much tweeness are its roots in a much less awesome, much more recognisable reality. Hazel, Alice and Jodie do not spend their time sitting in treehouses wearing pirate outfits and making up stories (Do kids even do that any more? Did they ever?). Rather, all of this begins because they want to stay indoors, for hours on end, playing their new video game. It is Hazel and Jodie’s mum, sick in bed and requesting a blueberry pie in exchange for the TV password, that pushes them to venture outside and get involved with some shady characters.
Riding their dirt bikes across the dusty, sunlit greenery of Ribbon, Wyoming, the three young children are dismayed to find the bakery is out of blueberry pies and the baker is sick. But they are also determined, and soon find her address. When they ask her for the recipe and offer to trade something with her for it, she plays along, thus becoming a sort of riddler on their fantastic journey. But the next adults they meet are less amenable, despite being actual witches — Razooli’s decision to set the film in a world where magic exists raises the stakes and moves the film further away from a patronising vision of childhood drama as pleasant but ultimately trivial.
The presence of dangerous adults — “the enchanted blade gang” — adds an edge of danger and uncanniness reminiscent of (perhaps inadvertently) creepy children’s TV shows and essential to any memorable fairytale. It also somewhat paradoxically returns the story to the much less charming real world: while equipped with supernatural powers, this gang is also armed with good old guns and rifles, and engaged in the depressing business of poaching. Their frightening leader, the witch Anna-Freya (Lio Tipton), calls this work by a much more enchanting name, and Razooli’s suggestion that even magic can be corrupted by adults is a sombre one. If both reality and fantasy are dangerous, where are our three heroes supposed to go? By the end of the film, even Anna-Freya’s daughter Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote), a magician herself, finds refuge in Hazel and Jodie’s house, where they all sit down to play their video game.
Riddle of Fire banks on the cuteness of its cast and naive dialogue a little too much, with some moments such as an improvised dance to Player’s 1977 hit “Baby Come Back” coming across as too self-conscious to be truly charming. But its unexpected and subtle undercurrent of melancholy, as well as its passing commentary about the way technology is depriving kids from living out any true adventures (surveillance cameras, iPhone tracking, perhaps video games, too) make it more substantial than the superficial nostalgic throwback it initially seems to be.
Riddle of Fire was produced by FullDawa Films (France), Fulldawa Films (USA), Anaxia (USA), Sohrab Mirmont (USA), and Lio Tipton (USA). International sales are handled by Mister Smith Entertainment.