Do you miss the days from childhood where you played outside - days from spring and summer that seemed to last forever? Playing with kids you’d meet whose names are long gone, when children had free rein of their time outside of school and computers and iPhones were a distant memory, and you were welcome to do as you choose and go where you wished? ‘Riddle of Fire’ is a throwback to those times, and so much more.
Alice (Phoebe Ferro) and brothers Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters) are three of the closest friends you’ll meet - and all they want to do is play the latest video gaming console. But what lengths will these rebellious kids go to to make that happen? Steal, lie and maim, to start. But it turns out even that isn’t enough to make it a reality. Their quest has them battling a witch, a huntsman, two ghosts, and a troll, befriending a fairy, and concocting a recipe to awaken a sleeping maiden. Can they complete their mission before time runs out - and with their lives intact?
Beautifully establishing itself as though it could be a film from the 1970s that you might stumble upon late at night on TV, the story weaved throughout ‘Riddle of Fire’ flawlessly keeps up its façade of fantasy while pairing perfectly with its 16mm film aesthetic. The characters (and in turn, cast) all play into the illusion that the world you become immersed in commonly comes across these magical creatures, thanks largely to the childlike perspective of the storytelling. It’s fun and yet dangerous at the same time; there are moments of real peril, and while our “woodsy bastard” John Redrye (Charles Halford, TV’s ‘Constantine’) is only ever superficially threatening, it’s our “witch” Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton, ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’, ‘Warm Bodies’) who offers the unexpectedly villainous threats.
Complimenting the supernatural component are the buddy and coming-of-age story elements that come courtesy of the kids. Honestly, it’s hard to say which part of the script is more enjoyable, but the former may trump the quest and mystical portion, because the younger actors and their dynamic are just so incredibly charming - particularly for a bunch of little rebels. Our core trio are blessed with a huge amount of screen time together at the film’s onset, so the development of their relationship is really allowed to blossom over the course of the 1 hour 53 minute run time. There’s also a cute (if not slightly predictable) love tangent between Hazel and Alice - but why not? She’s a bad-arse rebel who leads the two boys around with her tenacity and ruthlessness, and he’s brimming with bravery and quickness. Jodie rounds out the pack as the wildcard, willing to do anything to prove himself, and offering the most brilliant of comedic moments throughout the film. We add to that mix our “fairy” late to the story, Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote), who’s unafraid to say what she thinks and has a self-confidence unlike any other. All in all, with only small roles of experience smattered between these young cast members previously, they do amicably to hold huge parts of this film together.
This is the debut directorial feature from Weston Razooli, who also wrote and stars in the film. Premiering at Cannes, then screening at TIFF, MIFF and now SXSW Sydney, the man clearly has a bit of a fascination with the fantastical - all of his previous directorial work has had a tinge of the genre, and you’ll see “Anaxia” (the name of a previous short of his) all throughout the credits rather than his own. It’s an impressive first feature, and an extremely cohesive one at that - this is not a polished Hollywood blockbuster by any means, but it’s not by design. It’s something of a genre mash - between sci-fi, indie, children’s adventure and folklore - and miraculously seems to balance out all those parts. The cinematography courtesy of Jake Mitchell (‘8 Billion Angels’) takes us from a heist via motorbikes to a lush Wyoming forest to a disorderly party at 4am in the back of a cluttered market. None of it makes any sense logically, but it comes together into something beautiful and satisfying.
The younger actors and their dynamic are just so incredibly charming - particularly for a bunch of little rebels. Our core trio are blessed with a huge amount of screen time together at the film’s onset, so the development of their relationship is really allowed to blossom.
There are minor elements that work against the film - plot points in the script could certainly have been tightened to make the quest a little less prolonged, and allowing the sidestep (or at least putting a more of a negative spin) on one particular story element involving the kids and alcohol could have strengthened the plot. On the whole, if you can be swept up in Razooli’s world-building and the utter charm of the young cast members, this film will certainly win you over.
Let it cast its spell on you - ‘Riddle of Fire’ is such a unique creation, whether it be its genre mashup or its wide-ranging storyline or its captivating cast of children. These are the kind of unique cinema you yearn to uncover - and when you do, you revel in - and it’s a pleasure to spend time in this world of witches and fairies and motorbike rebels. It’s real and alive and vibrant; so present in the here and now and yet also so reminiscent of familiar memories. Join the quest and try to unlock the riddle for yourself.